How ECM helped a Worcestershire farm achieve high growth rates

21 January 2019


Achieving high calf growth rates is a key element of the strategy for an expanding Worcestershire herd

Pursuing the goals of achieving high herd health status while increasing cow numbers from his own resources mean early calf performance is a top priority for Worcestershire producer Dave Richards. A second generation dairy farmer, Dave has steadily expanded the herd to 300 cows and is looking to increase to 350 all year round calving cows.  The herd currently averages 10,500 litres and are BVD free.

“We breed all our own replacements and are looking to increase genetic merit through a breeding policy based on genomics and sexed semen,” he explains.  “Our objective is to maximise the production of quality dairy heifers while ensuring a good income from beef cross calves.  I used to buy semen annually with the aim of getting the best price, but now we see it as an investment and am more selective.”

 All cows and heifers are genomically tested.  The top merit heifers are put to sexed dairy semen with the poorer merit ones going to an easy calving Angus.  Dave is not overly worried about the value of beef cross calves from heifers as the real value to his business is in the heifer calving down well. Sexed semen is used on high genetic merit cows which have transitioned well as this affects reproductive performance.  All other cows are served to British Blue with calves sold to local beef farmers at 2-4 weeks old. 

Dairy heifers are reared at the home farm until weaning when they move to a rented unit nearby where they stay until bulling at around 350kg with the aim of calving in at 23 months old.  Heifers are weighbanded every time they are handled to keep a close eye on growth rates and allow the diet to be fine-tuned based on performance. Dave has always used external advice, working closely with his vet Nick Gibbon from Belmont Farm and Equine Vets, Ben Nottage from Worldwide Sires and nutritionist Mark Price from Wynnstay.  For the last 18 months he has also been working with Wynnstay calf specialist Jess Charlton to improve health and performance in pre-weaned calves.

 “We use specialists to help us get the best from the cows so it is logical to do the same for the calves which are our future,” he says.

 All calves are initially kept in individual pens and fed colostrum immediately after birth with quality tested using a refractometer.  A bank of high quality colostrum is frozen for calves where the dam’s colostrum is inadequate.  Colostrum intakes are recorded.

 “Colostrum is free so we want to make best use of it,” Dave continues.  “When we review calf performance poor performers can often be traced back to lower colostrum intakes.  Once calves are settled we batch them in hutches.”

Before Jess began advising on calf rearing, milk replacer had been fed on a trough-based system but she advised moving to individual teated buckets so that intakes could be monitored daily. Calves were fed a skim milk based 23% protein, 20% fat replacer mixed at 150grams/litre.  Calves receive two feeds of three litres giving a total of 900g powder per day.

 “The aim is to keep the system as simple as possible as there is no designated calf rearer,” Jess explains.  “Calves are fed to appetite and in addition to milk replacer they are fed Wynnstay 18% Start ’n’ Wean calf concentrate.  Straw is always available too.”

 The calves are bedded down daily and in the winter this will be later in the day so that they are settling down on dry straw at night. Jess visits the farm monthly and weight bands calves at each visit to monitor growth.  The weaning objective is to wean the youngest calves at 56 days old using step down weaning over 10 days.

 “The requirement is to wean successfully so it isn’t rushed.  In addition to age we look at solid food intakes and calves must be consuming 2kg/day before we will start weaning them.”

 Growth rate was good at 0.7-0.8kg/day but both David and Jess felt there were options to increase growth to get stronger calves at weaning and to exploit the early growth potential.  The aim was to ensure more consistent growth and to control cost per kilo of weight gain.

 Dave Richards has been interested in feeding whole milk as calves always look well on it, but the economics and practicalities did not stack up.

 “It we were to feed whole milk we would have to take milk out of the tank and we know exactly what that is worth.  We would only ever feed milk of saleable quality to our future cows.  With waste milk, there are huge issues with consistency and health, and besides the clue is in the name.”

 In July, following discussions with Jess he agreed to try Wynnstay Elixir which is a powder formulated on the Energized Calf Milk principles developed by Trouw Nutrition.

 The Trouw Nutrition LifeStart project has highlighted areas where milk replacers can be enhanced to support better calf development and growth and shown that many current formulations of milk replacers are not ideal for feeding at a higher level.  They compared milk replacers with the milk produced by a suckler cow and found some big differences.  The result is a new category of milk replacer called Energized Calf Milk.

Suckler cow milk contains more fat than milk replacers but with less lactose.  Very importantly, both the energy and protein in cow’s milk are far more digestible than those found in widely available milk replacers. Fat contains twice the energy of carbohydrates, such as lactose, so it is important that milk replacers have a high fat content, but not all fat is as well used as others.  It is important that the fat is digestible and the fatty acid profile will have a significant effect on overall digestibility.”

 The fatty acid profile in milk replacers has a significant impact on energy digestibility and therefore utilisation and is very different from the profile seen in cow’s milk.  Trouw Nutrition have managed to recreate the exceptional levels of digestibility seen in milk fat in Energized Calf Milk by using a combination of vegetable oils. 

 Digestibility can also be improved by reducing the fat globule size and they have developed a new process which produces a fat globule one thousandth the original size and the same as the globule size in cow’s milk. Energized Calf Milk also only contains proteins from dairy sources as these are more digestible and better suited to pre-weaned calves than vegetable proteins. Combining good energy levels with a balanced fatty acid profile and optimal physical presentation means metabolisable energy has been increased by 10% compared to a typical milk replacer. 

 “Elixir is a 22.5% protein and 25% fat milk replacer with 100% dairy protein,” Jess explains.  “We are feeding it at a concentration of 135 grams/litre but feeding upto four litres per feed to maintain total intakes of powder at 900g/day.  The lower concentration than the previous milk replacer has benefits in terms of better digestion.

“Growth rates has increased to 1kg/day and rates are more consistent across all calves (see graph).  The calves have generally got a better bloom, are more energetic and more interested.

 “Body shape has also changed and they look more like mini-cows than lanky heifers.  They have better depth which will be related to improved organ development and also greater internal fat deposits which are essential for a strong immune system.”

Dave Richards says that exploiting calf growth is important for the efficiency of his system as rearing replacements must not be a drain of dairy herd profitability.

 “We look to paddock graze the heifers and if we have got good initial growth we can hopefully feed less concentrate at grass and still get them ready to come into the herd at 23 months old.

 “We are running at 22% replacement rate and are still growing the herd so heifers are very important to us, provided they are reared cost-effectively.  And the heifers in the pipeline have tremendous potential

 “The 1-2 year old heifers are in the top 5% of PLI while the heifers less than a year old are in the top 1% so we need to get them into the herd quickly so we can keep progressing,” he concludes.