How to grow great calves
How to grow
This is the digestive system of the cow. In a newborn calf, the abomasum is 60% of the volume and the rumen just 25%. It's a clever system says animal nutritionist Wendy Morgan.
“When a calf drinks milk, its body senses the milk proteins and a certain reflex makes the oesophageal groove divert the milk into the abomasum which is specially designed to absorb nutrients from it.”
At the same time, the earlier you can develop the size and functionality of the rumen, the faster the calf will grow. It is a fermentation vat, designed to digest fibrous feed like pasture and if you can develop it early using the right kind of food, it creates huge benefits over an animal's lifetime.
“We want to develop the rumen papillae,” says Wendy. “They're fingerlike protrusions that increase the surface area of the rumen, so the more we can get those papillae to grow, the more nutrient absorption we've got; the more nutrients, the better the growth rate. Eventually this leads to better producing animals whether for milk or meat.”
Price is no indication of feed quality
Specially-prepared calf meal has been proven to speed up the development of the rumen, but there's a huge variety of products to choose from. Most people immediately look at price, but that won't help you much economically or
nutritionally if you don’t know how to analyse what you’re looking at.
“You want to compare proteins and types of protein, the energy level,” says Wendy. “Where is the energy level coming from, is it coming from good quality grain or is it some other material?
“There’s consistency of calf feed too; is it the same recipe all the way through, so your calves don’t taste the difference and go off their feed for a day or two while they get used to it. Every day they’re not eating their feed is a day you won’t get the growth you’re looking for.” Every day, food-producing factories produce waste, for example biscuits that haven’t passed quality or packaging standards. That and other food waste from factories can be turned into feed for cows and calves.
“When we’re looking at energy in a calf feed for young calves, you want 13 megajoules (MJ) of metabolisable energy (ME) per kilo,” says Wendy. “That energy should come from starch from grains rather than coming from the biscuit waste, lolly waste, factory waste.
“You’re looking more at a slower release of energy to the calf and you’re looking at a consistent kind of starch rather than chopping and changing. I think with the biscuit waste, the biscuit company make one sort of biscuit one day, then a different sort the next, so there’s no consistent recipe there.”
Packaging on calf meal can be confusing too.
"There's a limited amount of space to put all the information about what is in there. Packaging can be used from one year to the next; material availability can change so sometimes the manufacturers list the ingredients in catagories, other times there is a huge list with 'ingredients selected from'. The best thing people can do is check with the supplier: sometimes they’ll look at the price, but they really want to be discussing what’s in the bag and what they’re getting for that money.” that is 12MJ of ME means you’re going to need more of it to get a calf to the same weight as one getting 13MJ of ME, which may cost you more per calf.
“It’s dependent on the price,” says Wendy. “Sometimes the 13 ME works out cheaper per calf over the season.”
2sooner, don’t require as much meal as they can come off it more quickly, and utilise more nutrients from grass. Even fresh milk is more expensive than meal, although many dairy farmers will say milk from their vat is ‘free’. But it’s not free insists Wendy, if a farmer thinks of everything they have invested to get that milk into the vat like fertiliser, labour and capital, and the cost in income by not selling it.
Weight is a measure of everything for a calf. It tells you their growth rate, how much they are costing you in terms of feed, and it will also eventually be the signal an animal is mature enough to become pregnant. • weigh calves at birth or the day you get them, eg 35kg • decide a weight you want to wean them, eg 100kg • decide a time period for growth, eg by week 10 • weigh your calves (or a random selection) every two weeks from weaning
If you’re not weighing your calves, you won’t know if they’re reaching their weekly target. An animal that takes two weeks longer to reach its target weight because it hasn’t had enough good quality protein or energy, is going to cost you in time, effort and feed costs.
“The more we measure, the more we know where to make improvements,” says Wendy. “If you don’t know how much you fed, if you don’t know how much a calf weighs, if you don’t know what weight they were when you weaned them, how can you review and make improvements for the following season?” The real surprise is how many farmers Wendy has met who don’t realise calves need water as well as milk.
“The calf is getting liquid (milk), but that liquid goes into a different part of the stomach. The milk is diverted into the abomasum, but the water will go into the rumen and it’s the rumen we’re trying to develop so having the liquid in there means that it’s a liquid environment for the microbes and the feed particles to move around in and be broken down.”
There’s also science to show water helps to grow better calves.
“Their growth rates are improved, their feed intake improves, so water is hugely important, but often overlooked. If we don’t give them good, clean, fresh water, they’re not going to drink it – you can have a trough of water and if they’re not drinking it, it’s the same as not providing it.”