World experts share insights and address myths about dairy heifer development

'We need to challenge everything that we've been doing in calf rearing,' was the central message from the speakers at our recent LifeStart Symposium, encapsulating the theme of the two-day event: 'Breaking down barriers: dairy heifer development beyond weaning growth'.

11 experts gathered from across the globe at the Trouw Nutrition Calf & Beef Research Facility in the Netherlands to share latest insights on early life nutrition with 300 delegates comprised of researchers, farm advisors, vets and farmers from 42 countries.

Maximising genetic potential

The premise of the event was simple – 'focus on early life nutrition of the calf to improve lifetime health and productivity'. This theory underpins the LifeStart Program, a heifer rearing approach which optimises calf nutrition in the first 60 days to achieve greater performance later in life. This works through metabolic programming, a phenomenon that helps maximise an animal's genetic capability.

"The phenotype of an animal is not only a product of genetics - we now know that we can influence gene expression over time without affecting the gene sequence," explained Leonel Leal, researcher at Trouw Nutrition R&D and Wageningen University. "Essentially the metabolism can be programmed early in life."

To achieve this, timing is vital as there's a critical window during a calf's development where nutritional intervention can have a long term impact. This is why the first two months pre-weaning are so important.

Early feeding principles

As well as timing, achieving results is about providing quality nutrition as well as the right quantity – and traditional approaches to both of these are changing.

The LifeStart Program recommends feeding 20% of body weight and aiming for an average daily gain of 800-1000 grams per day, as well as emphasising the importance of good colostrum and general calf management. Dr Michael Steele, Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta, Canada asked the audience to challenge their current assumptions about pre-weaning meal volumes and stop restricting early nutrition.

However, just doubling the amount of feed is not the best strategy, Dr Harma Berends, Researcher at Trouw Nutrition R&D explained: "Nutritional requirements change with growth rate so we need to look at feed quality and make sure it's meeting the long term needs of the dairy cow. Quantity is important but it's not the only factor."

Leonel Leal

Michael Steele

Harma Berends

On farm results

Preliminary results from our longitudinal on-farm research show promising real-life results with calves fed LifeStart levels (1.2 kg/d) pre-weaning achieving an earlier age at first insemination and conception, as well as improved survival at 180 days in milk, compared to feeding traditional levels (0.6kg/day).

Dr Michael Ballou, Associate Professor Texas Tech University also presented data showing that if calves are well managed at higher plane of nutrition, they may have a better immune response and find it easier to overcome disease challenge.

Dutch Farmer Teun Wientjes showed how LifeStart is working in practice. Having more cows to increase his profitability wasn't an option for him. So instead, he aims to produce better cows, producing more milk over their lifetime through feeding a higher plane of nutrition pre-weaning.

Michael Ballou
Teun Wientjes

Àlex Bach

Rob Drysdale

Targets and tracking

Professor Alex Bach emphasised the importance of making nutritional decisions in relation to set growth targets; and linking growth to long term performance.
Rob Drysdale, a UK dairy vet, gave his thoughts on how farmers and vets can improve their data management to assess progress and see a return on investment in relation to health goals. He advised not to be afraid to change the plan if it is not working, in line with his memorable mantra: 'Measure, manage, monitor – repeat.'

Don't get tunnel vision

Harm de Wildt, CEO Trouw Nutrition: "We will need to produce more food in next 34 years than the last 8,000 years combined. Increasing sustainable productivity has never been more important and will rely on producing more resilient cows with higher lifetime performance. Data shows that this is achievable but not if we keep doing what we've always done. We have generated more questions through our research that we are striving to answer but a good place to start is to challenge our preconceptions around calf feeding and embrace a new era in science-based calf nutrition."

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