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Embracing change results in reinvigorated calf performance

When Welsh dairy farmer, Steven Jones, noticed that his calves were lacking their usual vigour, he willingly embraced a raft of changes to get calf performance back on track.

“Like other dairy farmers, we know how important it is to get calves off to a good start and set a heifer up for a productive life in the milking herd,” explains Steven, who farms in Llangedwyn, alongside his wife, Sarah, and father-in-law David Suckley.

"When I think back to what our calves were like a couple of years ago, I remember them lacking vigour, as well as lacking the shiny coats that I’ve always associated with strong calves."

Changing the approach of calf rearing

Huw Edwards and Steven Jones

“In the summer of 2019, I had an impromptu visit from my ForFarmers account manager, Huw Edwards and his associate, Peter Whittal-Williams, who is the ForFarmers youngstock specialist for Wales. They took a look at the calves, listened to my concerns and then we started investigating ways I might reinvigorate calf performance."

"In the end, we revamped our whole approach to calf rearing. But you have to be willing to embrace change to make improvements and the positive results we’ve achieved have justified all the adaptations made.” 

The Suckley family farm is roughly 400 acres and supports 340 pedigree Holstein cows which each produce an average of 10,000 litres of milk per year, at 4.8% butterfat and 3.5% protein. Cows are milked twice a day and are housed and calved, all year round. 

Refrigerated colostrum and new feeding protocols

The first changes that Steven implemented focused on colostrum storage and management - moving away from storing colostrum in buckets and instead testing for quality using ForFarmers colostrum balls and then storing colostrum in a dedicated fridge. “It’s really important that colostrum is quickly milked from a calf’s mother, tested and stored in a refrigerated environment,” explains Peter Whittal-Williams. “Bacteria in the colostrum will multiply twice every 20 minutes that colostrum is left at room temperature. When a calf is born, their digestive system is very open to infection and bacteria laden colostrum will cause significant health challenges.” 

Calves are penned individually, and Steven opts to feed them two litres of good quality colostrum as soon as possible post-birth, and then an additional two litres within the next 12 hours. They then move on to a new, advanced feeding protocol that Peter and Huw recommended, and are fed with a skimmed milk replacer. 

Calf rearing set up

New feeding protocols

“The new feeding protocol aims to get the calf feed intakes up to three litres of milk quickly, but without overloading the abomasum,” says Peter. “After their colostrum, for the first week calves are on 2 litres of milk replacer, two times a day. From their second week they go up to 2.5 litres, two times a day, and by the third week are on 3 litres. 

“The first three weeks in a calf’s life represents a significant window of opportunity. This is when all the major organ development occurs most quickly, so we want the calves taking on as much feed as they can during this period. Pneumonia can be a big issue in calves, but if organ development goes well and lungs develop strongly, it reduces a calf’s susceptibility to this illness.”

Huw continues: “We also recommended that Steven tried feeding Vitamilk Premium, which is a skimmed milk powder. As well as increasing the digestibility of the feed, the skimmed milk provides a slow-release energy source that takes around 12 hours to leave a calf’s abomasum, compared to two hours with a whey-based product. The milk power is mixed at a rate of 180g per litre of milk.”  

As well as the changes to feeding, Steven now provides calves with an anti-scouring medication for the first seven days of life, and pneumonia prevention medication at nine days of age. 

Avoiding growth checks and feeding mix-ups

Colour coded tags

Weaning is now also taking place more gradually on the farm, over a two-week period, and a colour coded system has been put in place to ensure accurate calf feeding. 

“Each calf pen has a specific-coloured tag, and this relates to the stage the calf is at in the feeding protocol and how much milk they should be fed,” continues Steven. “All the relevant feeding information is kept on a board in the calf housing, so it is clear which animals need to be fed what – it’s a great help and avoids confusion. 

“When it comes to weaning, we have introduced a gradual wean over a two-week period to avoid growth checks associated with a short, sharp wean. Between 35 and 42 days, calves go down to 2.5 litres of milk twice a day and then between 42-50 days, it drops to 2 litres, once a day. We also only feed weaning calves in the evening, to encourage them to take on solid feed when they are hungry in the morning.” 

For more information

To find out more about youngstock feed, protocols or target 24 please speak to your local ForFarmers account manager or send us an online enquiry here