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Switch to skim milk replacer helps boost liveweight gains on robotic farm

Big improvements have been made to calf performance on Acland Farm over recent years, so when farm manager, Tom Nicholls, noticed that dairy calves weren’t feeding as much as usual, he decided to switch to a new, skimmed milk replacer. Following the switch, calf liveweight gains have increased to over 1kg/day, with heifer calves now better placed to meet the farm’s target of 24 months for first calving. 

“A few years ago, we made a concerted effort to reinvigorate our approach to calf rearing and really pushed to increase average daily liveweight gains in calves and reduce average age of first calving,” explains Tom. “By changing our feeding and colostrum management protocols we got some great results – pushing average daily liveweight gains (DLWG) between birth and weaning from 0.6kg/day to 0.9kg/day and getting first calving down from 29 months to 25 months of age.

“We have continued to work on our calf rearing and want to get youngstock in the best condition and push for 24-month first calving. Mike Wynstanley, who looks after our calves, is always driving for continued improvement so last year we looked to make a change. Switching to a skimmed milk replacer has had a really positive impact. Average DLWGs are now around 1.1kg/day, we are on track for average age of first calving of 23 to 24 months and the calves look in even better condition.”


A robotic system

Acland Farm is owned by John and Dorothy Heller and consists of a herd of 380 Holstein Friesian cows, that are milked using seven Lely robots. Average milkings stand at 2.9 per cow/per day and yields are averaging 37 litres, at 4.45% butterfat and 3.35% protein.

“The milking herd are fed ForFarmers AMS cake through the robots and then we feed protein and rolled barley down the feed barrier, along with maize and grass silage,” explains Tom. “Having robots on the farm is great, as not only are we pushing yields, but it also frees up valuable management time that can be spend on other areas of the business - such a developing our breeding strategy and calf care.

“We use genomic testing to select the cows and heifers from which to breed our replacements, namely those animals that display the good butterfat, protein and longevity traits we are looking for. We use sexed semen to help produce around 160 replacements each year, and last year we achieved conception rates of 42%. We are looking to push first lactation performance in our heifers and yields are now up to an average of 34 litres, compared to 32 litres a couple of years ago. A lot of this is down to our targeted approach to genomics, but also our good youngstock rearing protocols.”

Focus on calf rearing

Tom has always been pleased with the quality of the youngstock that the farm produces but has made changes to calf rearing protocols over the last five years to help improve DLWGs.

“We know how important it is in terms of business profitability to get heifers ready for first calving between 22 and 24 months of age,” continues Tom. “Calves have the capacity to make very strong early growth gains, so this early stage of life – between birth and weaning – is really important. If we manage this phase well and get calves off to a strong start, then growth gains will be sustained as they mature.

“Once born, we transfer a calf to a ‘hot box’, which is a straw-bedded box with a heat lamp in it and then feed them with four litres of high-quality colostrum, as soon as possible, followed by another eight litres in the first eight hours of life. Quality is key, so we test the mother’s colostrum using a brix refractometer and if it has below 50mg/ml of immunoglobulin, we will feed artificial colostrum instead.”

Calves are then moved into hutches, where they stay for seven days, receiving a further two days’ worth of feeding with colostrum before moving on to a calf milk replacer.

Calves at Acland Farm

Switching calf milk replacer

Traditionally, calves were fed with a whey milk replacer in individual hutches until seven days old and then moved into larger pens in the farm’s dedicated youngstock shed. They were then fed with an automated milk machine up until weaning at 10 weeks of age.

“This setup seemed to be working well, but Mike is excellent at asking himself what can we do better. He did some research to see how we could increase growth rates further and improve the immune system of the calves,” continues Tom.

“I started thinking through the options and also got some advice from my ForFarmers account manager, Matt Jenkin who suggested switching to VITAMILK Premium, a 45% skim based powder. The results in calf growth and health speak for themselves.”

“We have seen the benefit of this change in our heifers,” Tom continues. “Currently they are well grown and strong at 22-24 months of age and can eat the high level of forage that we ask of them. They are yielding over 10,000 litres on average, with several heifers yielding over 11,000 litres, with strong milk quality and good fertility.

“We are looking forward to seeing the full benefit of this improved calf growth in heifer performance as we move forwards.”

Reviewing the young calves

The benefits of VITAMILK Premium

VITAMILK Premium has a 45% skim milk content, with 23% protein. Purely whey-based replacers have a short pre-digestion period of between 1-2 hours in the abomasum, before moving to the small intestine. This can can put quite a lot of stress on a calf’s digestive system and make them feel full, very quickly. A skim milk replacer on the other hand provides a slow-release energy source that takes around 12 hours to leave a calf’s abomasum.

“We feed the VITAMILK Premium at a rate of 180g per litre of milk and we have been really pleased with the results,” concludes Tom. “Calves are now back feeding more regularly, intakes are up and pre-weaning growth rates are even better than they were before – rising from 0.9kg/day to an average of 1-1.1kg/day.

“While a lot of the credit for our good calf performance needs to go to Mike Winstanley, optimising calf performance is really important too. A combination of good management and the right type of calf milk replacer has had a really positive impact.”

Mike concludes: “The calves transition smoothly from colostrum on to the VITAMILK Premium, with no growth checks. Calves are getting off to a strong start in life and as they mature, they continue to achieve good growth rates.”

For more information

To find out more about our VITA range, feeding protocols or Target 24 please speak to your local ForFarmers Account Manager or follow the link below:

Contact a Youngstock Specialist