Interview: Gill Dickson on the benefits of warm ad libitum feeding

In the final part of our four-part series with Gill Dickson, veteran calf and youngstock advisor, LifeStart asked her to discuss her thoughts about the benefits of warm ad lib feeding, given her vast experience in the field

LifeStart: Why and when is it necessary and/or beneficial to provide warm ad lib feeding (as opposed to cool or cold)? What are the specificbenefits of warm ad lib feeding?

Gill Dickson: Cool ad lib feeding works well on calves during the summer months, but you are then asking the calf to warm up the milk using calories from its own body. You have to ask yourself, is that an efficient use of energy? Once the ambient temperatures drop below 10° Celsius, it's difficult to get calves to consume six litres of cold milk, and both growth rates and health will suffer. So, at this point it's essential to revert back to warm milk feeding.

LifeStart: What is the best method that you have seen for making sure calves get warm milk, ad lib? Is there a specific way/system you feel works best?

Gill Dickson: The same rules apply here as for computerised feeding machines. Calves need five days in a single pen to get colostrum and learn how to use a rubber teat, by a gravity fed teated bucket.

The 'hopper type' warm ad lib feeders which mix up milk on demand, will feed up to 50 calves, and work well. But, they don't have an automatic circulation system, so it's important that the farmer implements appropriate hygiene protocols. The machine demands electrical and cold water supply. Some are available via rental schemes from milk powder manufacturers for approximately £400- £450 (€510- €575) for six months. There are several outlets from the mixing bowl,so it's best to create two pens: An introduction pen for the starter calves, and then draft them into the main pen when you are sure they are drinking.

Since 2014, the Heatwave Milk Warmer has been available. This is a halfway house for people who want their calves to grow better, but can't afford the fully computerised feeder. You can purchase it outright for less than £400 (€510) and the machine will rear up to 30 calves (or 50 lambs). Milk powder, or whole milk is stored cold and heated up on demand. It's been proven to be a really successful way to grow beef calves ready for market, and many dairy farmers now use it for heifers too. You can find this particular product at: www.heatwavemilkwarmer.com

LifeStart: Are there any concerns or drawbacks farmers might see or feel about warm ad lib feeding that you can help alleviate?

Gill Dickson: The most frequently asked question is about scouring. Take it from me, ad lib feeding doesn't cause scouring. Ad lib means available all the time. If you start restricting the milk, that's when calves can gorge, and scour. If you want to slow down milk consumption, you can turn down the thermostat.

Weaning has to be managed carefully, so weigh-banding in order to establish daily live weight gain is a good idea if weigh scales are not available. It gives you the confidence to start the weaning process. They won't take much dry feed until the milk supply is reduced. Fresh palatable feed, straw and clean water are very important to encourage weaning. Around eight weeks most calves will start to eat dry feed, even on ad lib milk. By nine weeks they will be eating as much as a 'restricted,' calf but they will be much bigger and have higher potential intakes!

LifeStart: What else would you like farmers and farm advisors to know about warm ad lib feeding?

Gill Dickson: In the first 60 days of life, it pays to put in as much milk as possible to make the most of the excellent feed conversion rate at that age. The knock-on effect is huge, meaning that the positive repercussions and implications are clear. Research done all over the world has shown the "metabolic programming" effect not only promotes growth in the heifer, but influences the size of her vital organs and mammary tissue. This influences future lactation performance, and also promotes good fertility in this generation as well as in generations to come.

In these hard times, farmers may want to feed waste milk. Feeding antibiotic milk to calves is never a good idea. Feeding Johne's infected milk to heifers isn't a great idea either. Similarly, mastitis milk is often lumpy and blocks the lines and filters. There is at least one preservative on the market which can be added to whole milk and prolongs the life of the milk for 24 hours. And, whole milk will last longer if it has been chilled as this helps to control the growth of bacteria which ultimately cause the milk to spoil.

Many milk powders are partially acidified. This gives them 'long life' characteristics and also helps digestion. Many of the harmful bacteria in the gut are supressed by the acidity of the milk powder, so it also helps to reduce the risk of scouring. Additionally, feeding milk powder to heifers helps to avoid Johne's disease, so this can be considered a part of a Johne's control programme.

Want to learn how to put this into practice?

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