Starch key to youngstock success

On any dairy unit, good youngstock management is essential in laying the foundation for the future herd as well as securing extra revenue if rearing beef calves.

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Research shows up to 35% of heifer calves will never go on to reach first lactation while 17% of first lactation heifers will never reach second lactation. Nutrition and management is therefore key to successful heifer rearing on any dairy unit, says ForFarmers’ Youngstock Product Manager Ann Coombes.

She says: “Starch plays a key role in dairy cow diets at all stages of their lives, driving feed intakes and rumen efficiency. This is particularly the case for calves when the animal’s feed conversion is at its optimum. Feeding a concentrate with a high starch content drives intake as feed will be more palatable, while aiding rumen efficiency.”

Starch also ferments more quickly than fibre and calves require both to promote quick rumen development, minimise acidosis and maximise daily live weight gain. Ann says: “The rumen is a highly adapted fermentation vat and won’t fully function until the calf is at least six months old. For the rumen to develop as efficiently as possible, it needs high levels of starch to kick start the rumen bugs.”

Starch is a large complex molecule. The microbiome breaks down the starch into volatile fatty acids which get absorbed by the rumen wall. These acids can be used as an energy source as well but can be wasted. The vast majority of the calf’s microbiome comes from the environment and its solid feed. Establishing this will allow animals to efficiently break down forage later on in life.

“The more concentrate the calf eats, the quicker the rumen will develop. Intakes should not be limited in the pre-weaning stage and importantly, the amount consumed determines age of weaning. It is so important to get the most from the animal at a young age as this is the period it will be most efficient at converting feed to growth. The first six months of life are of the greatest importance in this respect.

“Eating solid feed is not a natural reflex, but a learnt response. Blue calf buckets are not recommended for offering calf feed but instead shallow container where feed can remain fresh.”

Starch plays a key role in dairy cow diets at all stages of their lives, driving feed intakes and rumen efficiency

Pre-weaned calves convert dry matter to daily live weight gain at a ratio of 2:1-2.5:1 while by the time they get older and start on a TMR, they are converting at 6:1-7:1. It will take 3-4 weeks of feed being offered to calves before they can digest any energy from it. The longer before calves are offered feed, the longer it is before that energy gets into the calf.

Provision of forage will help rumen buffering and for the calf’s rumen development but too much forage preweaning will limit intakes of concentrate even if chopped.

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“There are financial consequences of your calves not sufficiently growing,” says Ann. “The industry standard of age at first calving at 22 to 24 months age and 85-90% of mature bodyweight means efficient growth in youngstock is essential. In the first six months of life, 50% of a heifer’s skeletal development takes place, so this early period is so important.

“There is also a direct correlation between a heifers’ bodyweight at calving and its yield in first lactation, with heavier animals producing more milk. A good start in life will help heifers express the best of their genetic potential.”

She continues: “With an increased awareness in the industry of the importance of starch in youngstock diets, ForFarmers has recently increased the starch content of their VITA range, known as Super VITA, which is their most premium range of youngstock concentrates.

“Dr Alex Bach has carried out work showing starch is a driver of rumen development and recommends a starch content of 25-30% in youngstock feed for optimum daily live weight gain. We implemented changes in the formulation of the VITA range in response to this work. We are aiming for a consistent level of starch all the way through the animal’s early stages of life, from day one through to post-calving.”

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