Boost calf daily live weight gain this summer with ad-lib feeding

Dairy farmers are being advised to consider ad-lib feeding this summer to boost dairy heifer calf growth and lifetime yield potential.

According to Clare Lawson, our Calf and Youngstock Product Manager, up to 1kg of daily live weight gain (DLWG) can be achieved using this type of feeding system when birth weights are at least 35kg.

“When calves feed naturally on the cow, they typically drink between 11 and 15 litres per day. Ad-lib mimics this instinct and can often lead to better growth rates than in a restrictive system.

“There’s also the added benefit that calves are fully weaned off milk on average four days earlier on ad-lib systems meaning feeding costs can be reduced.”

There is evidence to suggest that if calves achieve an extra 0.2kg DLWG in the first eight weeks, it can result in 500 extra kilos of milk in their first lactation.

“Therefore, if you are able to go above this and achieve up to 1kg of DLWG, this could pay dividends once these cows reach the milking herd,” she adds.

To optimise performance with the system, Clare recommends feeding a top-quality milk replacement powder.

The advice is bolstered by the latest LifeStart Science research that’s revealed calves provided with a consistent, high plane of nutrition via ad-lib milk feeding, experience benefits post weaning above those animals of the same genetic merit that are fed a lower plane of nutrition.

“Elevating the plane of nutrition pre-weaning not only leads to higher calf growth rates and improved heifer performance but can also result in long-term positive impacts on fertility, survivability and lactation performance providing a clear return on investment,” says Clare.

Farmers must also take steps to smooth the transition from milk to non-liquid diets to avoid a post-weaning growth check, which applies to both ad-lib systems and restrictive systems.

“Calves will need to be eating 1.5 to 2kg of starter feeds before milk is fully taken away. When feeding ad-lib, calves can be slowly weaned over ten days by gradually taking milk away for a certain period of the day, with the total milk feeding period becoming shorter over a set period of time.

It is advised that farmers contact their nutritionist if target calf growth rates are not being achieved, in order to review all aspects of calf management.

“Every farm is very different in its system, so we focus on working closely with the farmer and their vet when offering advice.

“As a team, we can maximise the pool of ideas and help identify the best solutions to try, bringing in suggestions from our knowledge and experience of other similar farms and from trial work,” concludes Clare.

Case study example

According to Rory Christie, who runs a spring block calving herd of 1,100 cross-bred milkers in South West Scotland, moving from a restrictive system to ad-lib feeding has resulted in significant improvements in daily live weight gain (DLWG) in the first eight weeks of life.

The higher DLWG promoted by the ad-lib system means Mr Christie is able to gradually wean calves and have them fully off milk by 52 days, compared with their previous average weaning age of 56 days. Individual calves regularly achieve 0.97kg DLWG based on 35kg birth weight.

“Those early weeks of life are the most important and, if we get it right, heifer calves have an increased chance of being more successful cows. For us, it’s about meeting lifetime weight and yield targets and calf live weight gain,” explains Mr Christie.

Discussions with his nutritional specialist at Carr’s Billington prompted Mr Christie to think further about overall calf health, development and their lifetime potential.

“We moved to a high-spec milk powder which has worked well so far in the ad-lib system. We have reared calves successfully on whole milk in the past but switching to a powder is one of a number of measures we’ve taken to help protect against Johne’s in the herd. Powder can also provide more consistent milk quality, ease of management and, in theory, it can be cheaper, depending on your system and how you decide to account for that.

“There is no question that you have to pick a high-quality milk powder to get results; it should be one that suits you and you feel is value for money.”

“The powder we use, Vitality, part of Carr’s Billington’s energized calf milk range, is balanced in a way that calves can take a lot of milk and not suffer from any nutritional scour, so we’ve been able to increase intakes and growth significantly while maintaining the same good health as before,” Mr Christie adds.