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Calf Team Study Tours

Calf Team Study Tours
By Laura Monk 6 months ago


Our trip to Bavaria, Germany in early March had 3 main focuses; the use of Energised Calf Milk (ECM), the use of a straw TMR for calves pre and post-weaning and the utilisation of the Fleckveih cow as a dual-purpose breed. The trip started with a visit to the Trouw milk powder factory where we could see the range offered to German farmers and the method of production. Here we also talked about the research behind ECM and the benefits realised on farm when using it.

Following this the concept of using ECM for its comparability to whole milk and support of the lifetime performance of youngstock has become a popular choice in Germany where an acidified version is fed ad-lib. The powder is mixed warm but cools between feeds, therefore lowering the pH to 5.8 reducing the opportunity for a bacterial load to build up.

Alongside the ad-lib ECM, all 3 farms we visited were offering a calf specific TMR in the place of the starter feed and straw we would see offered in the UK. The TMR was offered ad-lib in troughs and included maize, barley, soya, straw, molasses, minerals and linseed.

Pedigree Fleckveih cows were all we saw on all the farms we visited, being utilised for their dual-purpose ability to produce yields of over 10,000L in addition to more commercially viable bull calves which on the ad-lib ECM and Straw TMR system were growing to 100kg in just 5 weeks!

Northern Ireland

Later in the year we travelled to Northern Ireland with Volac. Our trip started at Greenmount Agricultural College, where we were shown their impressive dairy set up, the farm manager explained how cow comfort and reduced ammonia output has driven them to experiment with cubicle and house floor designs from all over the world. All the smallest details had been considered and although this design may not be mirrored commercially a lot could be learnt from the results of the ideas they had implicated. We were also able to see the site and the plans for the new calf shed as well as hear the thoughts behind the design.

Next, we visited a 650-cow robotic dairy unit with a Forster Technik CalfRail in operation. The CalfRail allows calves to be automatically fed up to 8 times per day while remaining in individual pens. It was great to see one in action, as well as hear feedback from the farmer on trials with different feed frequency and portion size with the verdict of a 1.5L portion size working the best for him.

Our second day started at the Agri-food and Biosciences Institute at Hillsborough. Here we had a presentation on the findings of all their ongoing calf research. Some of their most recent studies found the use of a smaller starter pellet over a starter nut had no benefit, and the positive effects of using calf coats, are more relevant in housing systems that are more open and liable to climatic change.

A new purpose-built calf shed in its first months of use was our next stop. The unit was enclosed with gale breakers and was internally ventilated by a tube fan, incorporating 4 pens and 1 automatic feeder. The straw bedded floor was on a gradient sloping towards slats in the feed area. Seeing the design allowed us to pick out what was working well such as the air movement, the easy to clean concrete floors and walls and the drainage from the bedding. We could also identify potential for improvement; for instance, the slats were a great idea for keeping the feed area clean, but it was evident ammonia was given off by the pit below.

Calving was in full flow at our final visit on a conventionally milked herd, again rearing calves on an automatic feeder after starting them in individual pens. Here the number of calves on the ground had overpopulated the feed stations so some were being bucket reared. The calves on this farm were thriving on either system and following a great discussion with the farmer and his wife it was evident their success could be put down to a rigid colostrum protocol and a high level of husbandry.

Take-home messages:
  1. The use of ad-lib ECM is the closest way to mimic natural cow to calf feeding and accelerate growth rates in both bull calves and replacement heifers.
  2. Calves should be bedded IN straw not ON straw.
  3. Housing has a huge impact on calf health with the main things to consider being – ventilation, drainage and opting for surfaces that are easy to clean and disinfect.
  4. Automated calf-feeding technology is a great tool for the industry and can increase productivity, but these advantages are only exploited when all other challenges affecting the calf’s performance are being addressed.

Laura Monk - Calf & Youngstock Specialist

Laura Monk

Calf & Youngstock Specialist

Cornwall, Devon, South Somerset

m: 07767 275662