How to grow great calves

How to grow

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - Source: Poukawa calf rear­ing project

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.”

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