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Early feed management of calves

Early feed management of calves

Early feed management of calves

How well calves are reared impacts their lifelong performance. Significant investment in time, energy and money has already been spent on the calf for either genetic gain of replacements in the milking herd or for meeting the beef market.

The naïve immune system of a newborn calf needs antibodies, immunoglobulin G (IgG) being the main one. More than 40 percent of New Zealand-born dairy calves have below-optimal IgG levels resulting in higher mortality and lower growth rates over the first six months of life. High-quality colostrum, fed as soon after birth as possible, is essential to improve outcomes.

With calving over a period of weeks, the colostrum collected in the milking shed varies in quality depending on the time since calving and how much her calf has fed before pick up. Best practice is to keep fresh, high-quality colostrum, often referred to as ‘gold’, from newly calved cows separate from cows that are two to four days since calving.

Tips on colostrum:

  • Measure the colostrum with a Brix refractometer, targeting greater than 22 Brix for ‘gold’ colostrum.
  • Keep ‘gold’ colostrum separate from lower-quality colostrum or transition milk and rank according to quality.
  • Prioritise the highest quality colostrum to be fed to the youngest calves.
  • If none of the colostrum is of high-quality, consider commercially available powdered options.

A rule of thumb for colostrum feeding is to remember the 4Q’s:

  1. Quickly – within three to six hours of life.
  2. Quantity – 10 to 12 percent of body weight.
  3. Quality – 'gold' in the first two days of life at greater than 22 Brix.
  4. sQueaky clean – buckets, equipment and calf feeders are cleaned with hot soapy water after each feed.

Always provide clean, fresh water to calves.

At birth, the calf does not have a functioning rumen, rather they depend on milk. To encourage rumen development, commence meal feeding within the first week. Offer small amounts initially, replacing leftovers daily so the meal remains fresh. Choose a meal with at least 20 percent protein. A roughage source like hay or straw also helps develop a healthy rumen.

Shed hygiene is important to improve outcomes. Feed calves in an area that can be easily cleaned daily. A concreted pen is ideal as this can be hosed down and disinfected. If this is not possible, consider how to reduce the risk of damp conditions that increase disease risk. Choose absorbent bedding that draws away moisture and inhibits harmful bacteria from establishing.

For all your calf-rearing needs, visit your local PGG Wrightson store or go online to view the range at