Rearing programmes and feeding and drinking systems for young calves

5 April 2018

There are many rearing programmes and associated feeding and drinking systems on the market aimed at young calves, and each programme has its own strengths and weaknesses. Which programme suits you best depends partly on what type of farmer you are, the size of your labour force, and your goal in terms of calf rearing.

programme may lead to the same healthy financial result as a high-tech programme.

To determine what kind of rearing programme is most appropriate for you, you should look at how you usually handle the rest of your operational management. Are you a farmer who mainly focuses on costs? Do you want to keep things simple with as little labour as possible? Or do you want to have as much data as possible in order to achieve the best possible result?

Low costs
A low-cost programme could involve feeding calves limited quantities of milk and focusing less on growth as an immediate priority. Such a programme's main aim is to ensure calves are healthy at the end of the weaning period – the animals will catch up on any lost growth or development.

Farmers who choose to implement this type of programme should first determine whether their livestock is suited to it. Slightly less high-yielding dairy cows with few health problems are the best fit for this, but you should accept that you will not utilize the cows’ full genetic potential.

However, having lower breeding costs and fewer health problems balances out these cows’ slightly lower yields. Of course, the choice of programme depends on other factors at play at your farm. If you have a large farm with little available labour, this fits perfectly.

A good feeding programme could include the following:

  • Limited feeding schedule with a total of 35 kilograms of basic milk-replacer powder.
  • Calves should be housed in group housing as soon as possible
  • Feeding with a milk bar.
  • Eight-week weaning period.
  • Unlimited, tasty roughage in feeding trough.
  • Limited but tasty concentrates in feeding trough.

Simple solution with minimal labour
A simple programme involving minimal labour can also produce great results. With better quality feed (and therefore higher feed costs), you can ensure your rearing produces the best possible outcomes.

But in order to minimize labour, you must ensure that your livestock are generally healthy. Your feeding and drinking systems must also be simple, reliable, and easy to operate.

A good feeding programme could include the following:

  • First two weeks with an unlimited feeding schedule, with acidified milk in a weaning bucket (provided twice daily).
  • After this period, calves should be group-housed as soon as possible.
  • Use a milk bar to dispense acidified milk.
  • Unlimited, tasty roughage and concentrates in combi-feeder (first two weeks) or feeding trough.
  • Shorten the weaning period if there is a good uptake in concentrates (weaning period should be a maximum of ten weeks).


Best possible result

If you want to get the most out of your rearing, with the best possible growth and the shortest possible rearing of youngstock (shorter than 24 months), you can implement a programme that makes as much data as possible available. ‘Knowledge is power’, after all, and plays an important role in producing the best possible result.

It is essential that you know what is needed at each stage of life of an animal in terms of housing and feed. But you also need to know when those needs change. To be able to monitor animals are getting what they need at every phase, you should perform scheduled checks during the rearing period.

For the first period (the weaning period), the checks should focus on daily growth and feed intake. Daily growth can be determined most easily using a measuring tape, while the feed intake can be monitored using an automatic calf feeder.

A good feeding programme could include the following:

  • Provide the calves with good-quality milk-replacer powder during their first two weeks in single-calf housing, so that the calf can make a healthy start and grow quickly.
  • After this period, calves should be group-housed as soon as possible and have access to an automatic calf feeder.
  • Feed the calves with large portions of concentrated milk several times a day (up to four times).
  • Provide unlimited, tasty roughage and concentrates in combi-feeder (first two weeks) or feeding trough.
  • Shorten the weaning period if there is a good uptake in concentrates (around 1.5 kilograms). The weaning period should be a maximum of nine weeks.

In conclusion
The programmes specified and the associated systems are intended as examples that may suit certain types of farms or farmers. Of course, there are several systems and programmes available, or a combination of these, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Hopefully, this article has made it a little clearer what kind of youngstock-rearing programme suits you the best. The next step could be to discuss this with your vet, your feed supplier, and your housing specialist, after which you can make any necessary adjustments to your rearing of youngstock.

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