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Livestock Event 2015: Ensure Youngstock are Healthy and Productive

06 July 2015

UK - The health and welfare of young stock, particularly in the dairy sector, are receiving more and more attention not only from the farmers themselves, but also vets, nutritionists and pharmaceutical companies.

The importance of ensuring that the calf receives a good start is being focused upon, because it has been recognised that the healthier and better growth rate of the calf, the more productive it will be as an adult cow.

The better the young heifer is cared for, the sooner it will be able to calve itself, milk yields will be higher and more productive lactations will result, according to animal health companies exhibiting at Livestock this week.

Care, Welfare, Environment and Nutrition

However, the performance of the calf in the early weeks and months is not just simply a matter of feed and nutrition supplement.

It is also a matter of care, welfare and environment. The better the care and welfare and the better the environment for the calf the better the performance.

"Nearly 2.5 million calves are born in Great Britain every year, but far too many fail to reach adulthood because of disease problems."

This all comes down to management and monitoring and through well sourced and researched systems the result will not only be a better, more productive heifer and adult cow, but also a more sustainably produced animal.

The goal of achieving improved welfare and sustainability and the use of environmentally friendly and natural methods to improve farm output have led to several animal nutrition and feed companies and pharmaceutical groups to develop programmes for the farmer to follow to get the best out of the herd.

Hot Topic at Livestock Event

A number of these systems that all have the same target and similar objectives are to be one of the main focuses at the Livestock Event in Birmingham.

The event will see the launch of an industry-wide initiative aimed at improving the health of the nation’s youngstock from MSD Animal Health (known as Merck Animal Health in the US and Canada)

The campaign will help farmers, vets, the animal health trade and other industry stakeholders cut the alarming youngstock losses suffered by the British cattle sector.

“Nearly 2.5 million calves are born in Great Britain every year, but far too many fail to reach adulthood because of disease problems,” said Alfredo Sanz Moreno MRCVS from MSD Animal Health.

“On average eight per cent of calves are born dead or die within 24 hours of birth on British farms.

“In addition, 15 per cent of dairy heifers born alive fail to make it through the youngstock rearing period.

“These are appalling losses and significant costs the industry can ill afford to bear. Fortunately, industry stakeholders are committed to reversing the trend, but everyone must work together to give committed youngstock rearers the tools to make a real difference on farm. This new initiative aims to do just that,” he said.

Half of British calves do not have their colostrum needs met

Addressing Calf Fatalities

MSD Animal Health launch its educational programme, which includes training and diagnostic tools for vets to help more proactive engagement with farmers over youngstock health issues, as well as best practice advice for calf rearers, this summer.

The initiative is supported by an educational website [] complete with practical video content and an opportunity to register for regular e-newsletters packed with topical youngstock management advice.

Mr Sanz Moreno said that colostrum feeding practices, environmental management issues and disease prevention are of particular importance.

“Unfortunately, up to 50 per cent of calves born in Britain do not receive enough good quality colostrum.

“Addressing this alone would help the industry make great strides towards reversing such depressing youngstock loss statistics.

“It is also estimated that around 50 per cent of livestock housing in Britain is not able to provide adequate ventilation. Infectious diseases too, particularly scours and pneumonia, continue to take their toll despite the fact that we have highly effective vaccines and other animal health products available to help farmers manage these problems,” he said.

Setting Up a Calf for High Productivity

Trouw Nutrition will also be presenting a similar plan with a structured concept for best-practice calf rearing based on existing and on-going research and a precise specification of calf milk replacer promises healthier calves that will become more productive cows.

“The LifeStart programme defines a method farmers can easily follow that can help improve profitability and efficiency by helping calves grow and develop faster to become healthy, productive cows,” said Trouw Nutrition GB Ruminant Specialist Georgina Thomas.

“It is based on exploiting the fact that early calf management programmes the metabolism of the cow and helps determine lifetime productivity.”

Ms Thomas says numerous trials confirm that achieving high rates of pre-weaning growth increase subsequent milk yields.

However, she said that only the correct combination of management skills and an approved milk replacer will achieve the programme objectives of enhanced growth and healthier calves.

“LifeStart is about more than growth. It is about making the full use of the potential the calf has, but nurturing them so they achieve higher growth rates in a healthy way.”

The LifeStart programme focuses on the critical eight to nine week pre-weaning period and is based on five key areas of cleanliness, colostrum, comfort, calorie intake and feeding consistency.

To ensure adequacy and consistency of feeding while achieving healthy growth, the programme stipulates feed rates, target growth rates and weaning age with particular emphasis on the quality of calf milk replacer.

“The aim is to ensure the milk replacer formulation satisfies the calf’s requirements while being safe to feed at higher levels. Based on considerable research we have produced a set of criteria covering such aspects as the physical properties, the specific protein content including amino acid composition, the precise fat content and the raw materials that can be included.

“Many suppliers are working with us so their milk replacers can carry the LifeStart marque. In addition, we are committed to further research to prove the effectiveness of the approach and will make the results public every step of the way.

“By getting the key areas of management right and using milk replacers formulated for healthy growth, farmers can give their calves the best possible start and see the benefits in better lifetime production when they enter the herd,” she said.

Calving at 24 Months Old

"Young dairy animals need to achieve a growth rate of between 0.75kg and 0.8kg a day from the milk feeding phase to calving."

Cargill’s step by step new calf and heifer rearing programme sets targets based on an accurate assessment of individual units.

The Nurture Calf and Heifer Programme is designed to help producers rear young dairy stock to calve at 24 months old.

According to Royal Veterinary College research findings this is the optimum age for heifers to calve and the most cost-efficient for most dairy units. The RVC concluded they lived longer, had fewer problems in later life and subsequently produced more milk per day of life compared with those heifers calving at older ages.

Based on the unit’s current performance and potential for improvement, the programme recommends nutritional and management practices for each of the young animal’s growth phases.

Seven phases make up the Nurture programme: colostrum feeding, pre weaning, post weaning, grower, puberty, pregnancy and close to calving.

Each of these phases sets out feeding and management guidelines and possible targets to promote a consistent growth rate from birth to 24 months old.

“Young dairy animals need to achieve a growth rate of between 0.75kg and 0.8kg a day from the milk feeding phase to calving,” said Cargill’s calf and heifer specialist Bianca Theeruth.

“If this slips, it is difficult to catch up and it can mean that age at first calving is extended, so rearing costs increase.”

Calving four months after the 24 month target can cost £160 in feed 

A recent Belgian study showed that an increase in the age at first calving from 24 to 28 months can cost around £160 per heifer in feed costs alone.

It also demonstrated that animals that calved at 24.6 months had 3.85 lactations compared with three lactations for those calving at 27.9 months, and 34 more productive days during their life than the older calving heifers. Immature heifers calving at 24 months old have been shown to have depressed first lactation yields.

“Although 24-month calving has been the target for many years, very little progress has been made,” Ms Theeruth added.

“More often than not, the focus is on the first two or three months of the calf’s life and then some of the good work is lost as heifers are turned out to grass or housed in a yard away from the main dairy herd. The purpose of the Nurture programme is to redress this balance and set clear targets, specific to each unit, for each phase right up to calving.”

Scorecard Your System

The Nurture programme uses a scorecard to evaluate the unit’s calf and heifer rearing system.

“We look at each phase and score the feed and management system and the animal’s performance. This shows up the areas to focus on. The producer and their adviser can then use the guidelines for each phases and work out where any weaknesses can be improved on in developing a customised programme for each unit.”

Nurture can also take advantage of the Cargill Calf and Heifer Growth Model. This takes account of the unit’s inputs and resources and considers them alongside the company’s growth models and database information to provide realistic targets and to demonstrate the effect of achieving these on overall performance.

“Nurture allows producers to work with their advisers to take out the weak links in the rearing system,” added MS Theeruth.

“The aim is to make the improvements in the best areas to achieve – or maintain – an age at first calving of 24 months with healthy, mature heifers that realise their lifetime potential in the milking herd.”

Growth Calculators

Volac’s Feed For Growth programme similarly brings a sharp focus to youngstock management from day one to ensure heifer replacements calve at 23 to 25 months.

The programme that features a road map, accompanying calculator and comprehensive set of technical guides enables farmers to create their own heifer road map which sets individual farm objectives and helps them to track performance and continually review to ensure each animal is on target to reach puberty by nine months, first breeding by 13 to 14 months and conception by 15 months.

An on line calculator sets growth targets and level of feed required, whilst back up technical information provides advice on all three external influencing performance factors – environment, health and nutrition.

“Farmers spend 20 per cent of their total annual farm investment on rearing replacements, whilst 22.5 per cent of those live born heifers fail to make their first lactation and for the remainder, breakeven is not achieved until at least mid-second lactation,” said Volac’s Jackie Bradley.

“Feed For Growth is designed to turn farmers’ traditional investment and management focus from adult cows to youngstock – their herd’s lifeblood, since proven research has concluded that that the connection between growth during the pre-weaning period and life time productivity is hugely significant.

“Feed For Growth will enable them to understand, plan, manage and review, and ultimately maximise their herd’s untapped potential.”

Chris Harris

Chris Harris

Top image via Shutterstock

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