Making dairy calf rearing more sustainable

As the drive to improve sustainability on farms ramps up, farmers are being reminded of the importance of maximising the efficiency of their dairy calves as well as feeding sustainable products.

Dr Jessica Cooke, from Volac, believes maximising the efficiency of any dairy herd starts with the calf.

She said: “Calves have the greatest feed conversion efficiency potential early on in life, so nutritionists have always striven to take maximum advantage of this period.

By not taking advantage of the high feed conversion efficiency potential early in life - heifers will have to grow more later in life when feed conversion efficiency is low - to reach the same body weight at first calving.”

Dr Cooke said beyond the milk feeding period, it’s also important to achieve growth rate targets efficiently to avoid delaying the age at first calving.

“A heifer calving at 24 months of age will start to return a profit in the second lactation, whereas a heifer calving at 30 months will not return a profit until it’s into its third lactation,” she said. “A delay in age at first calving contributes to an overall reduction in the efficiency of a dairy herd due to lost milking days.”

However, she said that efficiency is also about getting ‘more from less’ or even ‘the same from less’, adding: “When it comes to providing the right pre-weaning nutrition in the current climate, we also need to consider sustainability. And the inputs of early life calf production are primarily concerned with the ingredients used in milk formulas.

“Sustainable sourcing of ingredients for milk powder formulations is becoming extremely important and, in this particular context, manufacturers have to consider both the impact of growing the ingredient and also the usefulness of that ingredient in meeting the nutrition requirements of the growing calf.”

One approach to improve sustainability is to maximise the quality and use of home-grown ingredients.

“Feeding the dairy calf gives rise to the opportunity to have an impact on lifetime performance potential and efficiency through the use of modern calf milk formulas from Mole Valley Farmers. This represents a lifetime sustainability approach far greater than what can be achieved through feeding whole milk from the cow,” said Dr Cooke.

“However, when it comes to selecting calf milk formula ingredients, we need to understand how these have been produced. This involves issues such as land use, deforestation and social impacts on local communities - particularly when formulating ingredients sourced from overseas. We also need to evaluate yield per hectare, fertiliser and pesticide use and energy input requirements.”

Dr Cooke said palm olein, a liquid form of palm oil and a key ingredient in many modern calf milk formulas, is often in the spotlight when it comes to sustainable sourcing.

“However, it is important to understand there are sustainable options for palm, which offer support to smallholder communities, ensure best practice and education leading to no deforestation and no exploitation of local people.

“And, when you consider palm oil and its derivatives have the perfect fatty acid profile for efficiently meeting the nutritional requirements of the pre-weaned calf, simply omitting palm products from milk formulations would be a misguided approach to addressing a much larger problem,” she added.

In fact, palm is the most efficient oil-producing crop available today, producing more metric tonnes of oil per hectare than any other vegetable crop. Producing palm is particularly attractive for local smallholders because it can be grown on a variety of soils, requires relatively little fertiliser or pesticide, and bears its fruit all year round.

Currently, palm oil is grown on approximately 7.49% of land devoted to vegetable oil crops, yet palm oil makes up 41.1% of all vegetable oil production. (Ref: Oil World; 2018).

Highly efficient use of industry by-products

Thanks to the efficient microbial population in a fully developed rumen, adult dairy cows have always been able to make use of a variety of by-products from other industries.

This clearly helps with the sustainability goal. But, uniquely, Volac is exploiting this same trend for calves too - by supercharging whey, a widely available by-product associated with UK cheese manufacture.
Dr Cooke said: “About 10% of the milk produced by the national herd is taken up by cheese manufacturers. Volac then buys back 1.1 billion litres a year of the whey produced when cheese is made from British farmers’ milk, turning it into the valuable concentrated milk protein raw material used in our calf milk formulas.

“What you can certainly be sure about is the focus Volac nutritionists constantly have on sourcing the best ingredients for calf milk formulations for Mole Valley Farmers - and particularly those ingredients we know will deliver the best balance between animal performance efficiency and sustainability.”

For more information, please speak to your local nutritionist or call the
Feed and Nutritionist Line on 01278 444829.