Calf weights: current practices and proposed action for the future

Replacement dairy heifers for Clive Hall farm and other Grassland Solutions Group Farms (Fletcher and Co) are currently reared at pasture on whole milk.

The monitor farm’s next meeting will look at this topic on October 18th at Marlheath Farm, Fanshawe Lane, Henbury, Cheshire, SK11 9PL  Further Details >>

This follows the group’s trip to Moorepark Research Centre in Ireland on September 19th and 20th.

Calves receive approximately four litres of milk/day and supplementary corn is offered if necessary. Until April 2012, heifer calves have been weaned ‘by eye’ or by weigh banding at 10-12 weeks old; basically picking out those which are biggest and strongest, as oppose to analysing measurable data.

The benefits of heifers reaching target weight at calving are numerous and widely recognised and we believe that reaching weaning targets is surely the first area to focus on to ensure that mature target weight is achieved.

Heifer weights are not only important for their fertility but are vital as they enter the milking herd; a heifer that is 10% underweight at calving will produce 10% less milk compared to those at optimum weight and this trend will continue throughout their milking life. In order to ensure all animals calving in their second lactation are at weight and in good condition, all first lactation animals are to be dried off 12 weeks prior to calving with further weeks added for low body condition or lameness issues.

We have now started to weigh calves at monthly intervals using a digital Tru-Test weigh pad and track individual liveweight gains. Calf weights and gains are compared against a target weight chart following research conducted at Moorepark, Ireland.

This year we are on ‘catch up’ and calves are not being weaned at the typical age; the duration of milk and corn feeding is somewhat longer than usual as we try to get the animals to target weight. Analysis of calf weights has proven to be extremely useful in planning feeding strategies at different stages of the calf rearing program and has allowed us to adjust current feeding practices to maximise attainment of targets.

The reason our calves are ‘underweight’ is thought to be attributable to an in-balance in three key areas and we propose to address this in the following ways:

  1. If calves are housed in early spring then they must receive ad lib corn and water at all times.
  2. Calves at pasture require unlimited amounts of the highest quality pasture on the farm which can be achieved by rotating them frequently in front of the cows. This requires attention to the fences on the units to make this possible.
  3. Ensuring calves are able to eat as much corn/meal as they require. We are currently investigating whether or not we can wean calves off milk at a slightly lighter weight and feed corn to increase liveweight gains above desired to hit target weight prior to service.

 

We will continue to weigh calves frequently and re-group them with others of similar weight; a useful method to prevent growth suppression in smaller individuals through them being pushed out when competition is high.

The fact that we now are able to accurately weigh and monitor calf growth is helping us make management changes to improve what we do in the future so as to promote growth. Additional monitoring of feed intake will aid us in establishing an economical calf rearing program with high growth performance.

Jessica Ross, Youngstock Manager at Grassland Solutions Farms