Interview: Gill Dickson on the benefits of ad libitum feeding

In the third part of our four-part series with veteran calf and youngstock advisor Gill Dickson, LifeStart asked her to discuss her thoughts on the benefits of ad libitum feeding for neonatal calves

LifeStart: Why, in your view, is it better to feed ad libitum vs. restricted feeding for neonatal/ pre-weaned calves?

Gill Dickson: Would you feed a human baby once a day? Of course not! Why? Because they make a fuss and cry continually. But, calves don't complain. As a prey animal, a crying calf would attract predators, so instinctively they keep quiet. That's unless they are extremely hungry, and then they will bawl.

Young mammals are all designed to receive small amounts of warm milk at a time, and often. It satisfies their appetite, and it helps them to express their genetic potential. With ad libitum feeding, the calf decides how much she wants to eat and when to eat it. Heifers fed to appetite have been shown to triple birthweight by weaning, go to the bull earlier, have better udder development, better lifetime productivity, and in my experience, lower vet bills.

The downside of computerised feeding is that we are guessing at the amount the calf wants at each feed. For this reason, some rearers set the machine to allow ad lib feeding for the first month of life. Some beef calves from selected sires can have a massive appetite and an extraordinary growth rate if they are left to help themselves and feed to appetite. These will be heavier calves at weaning, have a bigger skeleton, and kill out at better weights.

LifeStart: Do you feel some farmers are still resistant to the notion of ad lib feeding? If so, why do you think they are?

Gill Dickson: There is no recording system to flag up calves who are not feeding. So good stockmanship is important. The ones who are feeding are flying around the pen with their tails in the air, whereas a sick one looks dull and hollow. It's not rocket science, but experience does help to identify a sick calf.

Also, there is a basic misunderstanding passed down from father to son, that too much milk will make them scour, and nobody wants a scouring calf. Too much milk IN ONE FEED will make them scour, but the same amount of milk split over several feeds won't! We cause scouring problems by restricting feed and making the calf VERY hungry, then they bolt down a huge meal, which overloads the abomasum, floods the digestive system, and sets up a fermentative scour. Conversely, when meals are available 24 hours a day, the calf will help itself maybe eight times a day to many small meals, sometimes consuming 8-15 litres a day and growing well in excess of 1 kg per day.

LifeStart: Are there any precautions that need to be taken when feeding neonatal calves ad libitum?

Gill Dickson: There are two precautions with ad lib feeding. 1) You have to make sure they have a well-drained, well ventilated shed, and a dry bed. 2) You need to monitor their growth rates and start to wean when they have doubled their birthweight. The weaning strategy needs to be planned. Depending on the numbers involved, they can be weaned as a group, or as individuals. If the whole group is ready, then disconnect the pipe from the warm milk feeder and immerse the end of the pipe in ad lib cold water during the night. Reconnect to warm milk in the morning. Gradually increase the hours on cold water over ten days, and you will find the dry feed intake will pick up. Turning down the thermostat to cool, will make the milk less attractive and aid weaning.

Alternatively, set up a once a day feeding system in a weaning pen and draft weaners onto a teated bucket. Feed three litres, then reduce over 10 days until they are weaned off. They need to be eating at a minimum 1.5 kg of cake (balanced calf starter concentrate at 18% crude protein) per day. Although, if you have fast-growing calves, ideally 2kg of cake per day is best to avoid a slight post weaning check. They would also need access to ad lib straw and water.

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