Modern calf rearing: You are what you eat

I’m the Senior Calf Milk Specialist with the Wynnstay group. We do some pig and poultry feeds, but the main part of the business is ruminant feeds for dairy, beef and sheep. We do also have an animal health division so we can take a holistic approach to animal health and nutrition and knit the two together. Even to the point where we sell calf housing and things like calf igloos to try and improve the environment for calves.

When we first started rearing calves in our calf unit they were actually on the cold, acidified milk system and we graduated from that to the twice a day warm system. And if I went back into calf rearing again today, I’d definitely be looking at the computerized calf rearing system.

So, I’ve handled a lot of calves over the years. And, you know, you are what you eat. And if you feed a calf really well in the first part of its life, it is a healthier calf. And because I’ve always been interested in animal health, I realized quite early on that animal health and nutrition are very, very closely linked.

In recent years there has been more and more research which shows that really looking after this calf right from the moment it’s born, making sure that the colostrum management is good, making sure that the environment is good and the hygiene is good, it helps the calf to reach its genetic potential. It just amazes me that farmers spend so much money on semen and genetics and then fail to feed the calf properly, because you have a lot more influence through feeding the animal, than you can by breeding. I remember when I was at college they used to say that 90% of the breeding goes in at the mouth. And with a baby calf that’s certainly the case.

Very often when I go on to a farm to try to assess the calves’ performance, we usually start by looking at the health of the calves and how much scours and pneumonia they’re getting. And there’s a very strong relationship between how much colostrum you get into them and then how much pneumonia you’re getting later on. So, we’ll have a look at that side of things. And then, look at how much milk powder they’re feeding. And generally speaking, if you feed at a higher plane of nutrition, you will get better health.

Farmers are always worried about cost and I think the only way to justify it is the fact that if you feed a calf really, really well for that first 12 weeks of life it’s going to be a bigger calf at the end. It’s going to be a healthier calf. You’re going to spend less money on vet’s bills. So, to my way of thinking, it’s the only way to go.

There was actually some work done a few years ago comparing the cost of once a day feeding, twice a day feeding, computerized feeding and ad lib warm milk feeding, and oddly enough, cost per kilo of live weight gain is pretty similar for all systems.

So, on a once a day system, you start off with a small calf and end up with a smaller calf. On an ad lib feeding system, you start off with a small calf and end up with a big one. So, there’s a lot more weight gain going on. If you divide that by the amount of money it’s cost you, the cost per kilo live weight gain is actually similar.

So, what’s the problem? Feeding calves really well the first 12 weeks pays off and it not just pays off in the first 12 weeks, it goes on to pay off by getting up to puberty earlier, getting up to calving earlier, being a bigger animal when it calves down, and going on to produce an extra 800 kilos of milk in the first lactation.