Farmers should think of calves as baby dairy cows so that they consider them as productive from the start of their lives rather than something they are waiting to milk years down the line. Optimal calf growth rate can help to unlock genetic potential for later life, enabling higher milk yields in two years’ time.
Calves reared on a high plane of nutrition will have fast efficient growth, less scour, higher resistance to disease challenge and optimal rumen development. When these calves eventually enter the herd not only will they produce more milk, but they will also be more durable. In fact, pre-weaning growth sets lifetime performance with effects on yield continuing through to the second and third lactations.
Roger Hildreth farms at Curlew Fields Farm, York and advocates this strategy for dairy heifers. Roger says “Future proofing your calves begins with good colostrum supply”. His calves are fed their own mother’s milk, never pooled colostrum. Roger says “If there’s a problem with the calf’s mother we have some in the freezer but this has already been tested with the colostrometer”. His calves are fed 4 litres of colostrum in the first 24 hours and spend 4 days on their own mother’s colostrum / milk. Then calves go onto best quality skim based calf milk replacer, with straw and pellets available. At first they start on one litre twice a day. At a week old they will be on 2.5 litres twice a day, building up to 4 litres at 3 weeks, equating to 800g of calf milk replacer. Roger is making use of a high growth rate at a time in the animal’s life when it is most efficient.
Growth is visible, nearly double when compared with 4 litres per day at 125g/l. Calves will also suffer less scour as well as fewer respiratory treatments. It’s also far easier to get heifers served at 13 months to calve down at 2 years. With high quality skim-based calf milk replacer during the first 5 to 6 weeks of life gains of 800 to 1000 g can be achieved.
Calves at Roger’s farm are weaned at 9 or 10 weeks with weaning taking place over the course of a week to 10 days. After weaning heifers are fed a blend containing wheat, soyabean meal, rapeseed meal and youngstock minerals & vitamins. Roger’s ideas are based on a trip he took to the USA, where experts said calves need to double their birth weight at 7 weeks and anything lost can’t be got back later in life. They also said heifers on cow’s milk don’t show improvements in heifer yield.
Roger advises never doing anything with the calves in cold weather, this includes dis-budding and moving. Roger’s calf housing is positioned so they get the west wind and therefore the first air. He doesn’t vaccinate for pneumonia, but advocates plenty of space and big open sheds. Doors on the pens have rubber strips to stop draughts.
For Roger the benefits are clear. Apart from healthy calves, the estimates are 1000 litres extra milk in the heifer lactation. Although he is already achieving calving at 2 years, (which means serving them at 380 kg), Roger thinks this can be reduced further. Roger weighs animals every month and says he serves on weight, not age.
One possible explanation for this phenomenon could be the influence of early feeding levels on the development of the mammary gland. It may be that some metabolic pathways are “switched on” by nutrients in early life. This will also have implications for farmers selling dairy heifers. Heifers that are reared to optimize genetic potential in early life will perform better when sold as newly-calven.

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