Friesian calf in barn

Top tips for maximising heifer growth rates

Rearing dairy heifer calves is one of a dairy farmers’ biggest annual expenses accounting for around 20% of production costs, despite heifers yielding no income until their first lactation and little profit until their second year.

It is important to get heifers in calf by 24 months, which is linked to a longer productive life and has been found to maximise milk production. Maximising growth in early life is also more cost-efficient due to a calf’s improved feed conversion ratio pre-puberty.

From feeding colostrum right through to housing and the environment, maximising calf growth rates involves getting several factors right.

1.  Good colostrum and milk management

The first 24 hours are crucial, calves need sufficient good quality colostrum to give them the best start. Colostrum is vital to the newborn calf because it contains antibodies and is also rich in energy and nutrients which are essential for growth. Remembering the ‘4 Q’s’ is a good reminder of what is required - Quality, Quantity, Quickly and Quietly.

When it comes to milk feeding, the key is consistency. Milk should be offered at the same time and temperature each time. Mole Valley Farmers CalfStart milk replacer range is formulated to cover numerous different calf-rearing systems to maximise growth and provide value for money.

2.  Nutrition and rumen development

Supplementary feed and water stimulate rumen development so it’s important to encourage starter feed and water intake as early as possible. Water alone accounts for 70-75% of a calf’s bodyweight. Nutrition is also a key component in preventing disease issues.

The better a calf grows, the better their immunity and the less likely they are to get sick. Mole Valley Farmers range of calf feeds have been carefully formulated with palatable ingredients and the optimal mineral balance to help achieve early intakes and promote weight gain.

Taking the time to set-up an appropriately designed building and system to accommodate the calves you are rearing will pay dividends further down the line. Assessing calf behaviour can also tell you a lot about the calf’s environment.

There are three fundamentals when it comes to calf housing:

  • Dry with excess moisture continually removed
  • Draught free
  • Clean and cleanable

A calf less than eight weeks old has a reduced ability to regulate its body temperature. As a result, the ambient temperature should be at least 15oC for calves under three weeks old and over 10oC for calves over three weeks of age. Don’t forget to also consider humidity and air speed as both can affect a calf’s ability to stay warm.

3. Weaning

Weaning can be a stressful time for calves, which is why a gradual, or two-step weaning process is recommended. Calves should only be weaned - at about eight weeks of age - after eating at least 1.5kg of starter concentrates per day, for three consecutive days.

Step weaning involves gradually reducing the volume of milk fed over a period of seven to 10 days. If calves are being fed milk twice a day, weaning can be achieved by cutting down to once-a-day feeding.

Calves should be weaned in the same place and other stressful routines, like dehorning and group mixing, should be avoided.

It is also recommended calves are weighed at weaning and then as regularly as possible through to service. By measuring you will be able to understand whether your animals are on track. If they are not, you can then intervene to establish why.

It’s important to remember calves form the future of your herd, paying particular attention to management during the rearing phase can have a significant impact on overall productivity and profitability.

 

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