Achieving accelerated growth in pre-weaned calves

Date published: 07 September 2022

Farm Innovation Visits (FIVs), delivered by the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) provide farmers with the opportunity to visit farm businesses in other parts of the UK or Europe to learn about new innovations in farming. A number of local farmers took part in a FIV to the Netherlands before Covid.

Philip Kyle feeds his calves on an accelerated growth programme.

Farmers saw dairy heifer calves that were fed on an accelerated growth programme pre-weaning. Calves fed on such programmes achieve higher growth rates resulting in reduced age at first calving and increased milk production. What are the keys to achieving high growth rates in pre weaned calves?

Michael Garvey, CAFRE Dairying Adviser, Armagh said: “At CAFRE, the calving pen design facilitates easy colostrum collection. Using the calving gate and a mobile milking unit, colostrum can be harvested safely and the calf fed 3½ litres as soon as possible after calving.” Michael continued: “Good quality colostrum contains a high level of antibodies, which the calf requires to provide immunity to disease. Results from tests of 97 cows at Greenmount Campus showed 90% had good quality.

“While milk harvested at the first milking is highest in terms of milk quality and immunoglobulin content, evidence suggests that feeding of transition milk aids the calves’ digestive development and overall health. Twenty litres of milk from the first three milking’s are retained in sealed containers, stored in a fridge and fed over five days in the Greenmount herd.”

Commenting on the calf management at Greenmount, Michael said: “On entry to the calf unit, calves are fitted with a jacket and housed in an individual pen for the first six days. Transition milk is fed and calves have access to water and starter concentrate from day two. From day six, calves are fed milk replacer and on day seven they move into a group pen onto the automatic feeder. Spare individual pen capacity allows pens to be rested following thorough cleaning and disinfecting. This is very useful in overall disease control.”

If the norm during the first two months is to feed 4 litres containing 600gms of milk replacer to give 0.6kg of daily live weight gain, the accelerated programme targets feeding a minimum of 7 litres containing 1kg of milk replacer to give up to 1kg of daily live weight gain. This will cost an additional £1 per day per calf at the current cost for milk replacer.

CAFRE calves are grouped and on the automatic feeder for 55 days and fed 60 kg of milk replacer until weaning. Target age at weaning is 62 days. In the ten days prior to weaning, milk intake is reduced and concentrate intake increases. Calves stay in the group pen for a further ten days after weaning so that concentrate intakes can be monitored.

Michael concluded, “CAFRE’s experience has been that calves have doubled their birth weight at weaning and gained weight steadily over the rearing period, with maiden heifers well grown at service and on target to calve into the herd at 550kg at 24 months.”

Gavin Duffy, CAFRE Dairy Adviser, Dungannon said: “Philip Kyle from Aughnacloy participated in the first FIV to the Netherlands in March 2019. On his return he implemented an accelerated growth programme for his pre weaned calves. Emphasising colostrum feeding and calf house management, calves are built up from five to eight litres in starter pens then moved to automatic feeding and weaned at 60 days old. Now Philip has two years of accelerated grown heifers milking in his herd and intends to continue with this higher level of milk replacer feeding as he sees the extra cost for milk powder offset by the good weights at bulling and improved calf health benefits.”

Philip is also a Technology Demonstration Farmer focusing on Feed Efficiency.

The Farm Innovation Visit scheme and Technology Demonstration Farm scheme are funded by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the European Agriculture Fund for Rural Development.

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