Optimising Calf Nutrition to Drive Healthy Performance: Part 2

Recent research is helping dairy farmers re-think calf milk feeding strategies for optimum health and lifetime performance. In an interview with British Dairying, Volac nutritionist Ian Watson discusses the importance of feeding high quality protein to young ruminant animals.


DEVelopments in Calf nutrition

The British dairy industry is starting to wake up to the fact that it may have been underfeeding calves for quite some time, but the next step change will be driven by improvements in the quality of pre-weaning diets fed to the nation’s calves.

Download our Farmers Guide – How Much to Feed the Pre-Weaned Calf


Volac Nutritionist Ian Watson believes that the main priority for dairy heifer calf nutritionists is to convince farmers to feed these valuable milking herd replacements appropriately.

“It is also important to recognise that although water and energy are the first limiting nutrients for the young calf, feeding high quality protein is also crucial. After water and energy, protein is the next most important nutritional component of the diet,” he says.

“The nutritional requirement for protein in the young ruminant animal – whose digestive system in the first few weeks of life is very similar to a mono-gastric – is better referenced by looking at the availability and digestibility of the amino acids supplied. Breaking this down further, there are essential amino acids that cannot be synthesised by the pre-ruminant calf and these must be supplied in the diet in sufficient quantity to ensure the maintenance of normal bodily functions and growth,” Mr Watson points out.

He adds that the absolute amount of each amino acid (in g/day) required by the pre-ruminant calf will depend on a number of factors including liveweight, health status, energy supply and the target daily liveweight gain.

“When formulating diets the term most commonly used to describe protein is ‘crude protein’ – but this is simply a measure of the nitrogen (N) content of animal feed multiplied by a conversion factor of 6.25. Sadly, there is no correlation between the amino acid content of a feed and the crude protein declaration on the label,” he says.


Volac is always examining how best to ensure its milk replacers meet the crucial balance between energy level, ideal amino acid balance and cost efficiency.

Find out more about the Volac range of Calf Milk Replacers.

“With the current volatility in dairy markets (dairy protein supply and cost), there is increasing industry-wide interest in replacing a proportion of the dairy protein in milk replacers with vegetable protein. However, when precision formulating diets using non-dairy proteins, both the physical and nutritional attributes of the alternative protein sources must be taken into account,” Mr Watson says.

The Feed for Growth Programme provides practical advice, resources and support to help farmers grow better cows. Find out more today.

Optimising Calf Nutrition to Drive Healthy Performance: Part 1

Recent research is helping dairy farmers re-think calf milk feeding strategies for optimum health and lifetime performance. In an interview with British Dairying, Volac nutritionist Ian Watson talks about what the future holds.


Optimising Calf Nutrition

The British dairy industry is starting to wake up to the fact that it may have been underfeeding calves for quite some time, but the next step change will be driven by improvements in the quality of pre-weaning diets fed to the nation’s calves. That’s the view of Volac nutritionist Ian Watson, who says the specialist young animal nutrition company is ready to meet the technical challenge.

“We know that feeding a good heifer calf up to 900g of milk replacer daily may be needed to meet optimum rearing targets – and absolutely crucial if you want to calve heifers down at 24 months. But more importantly, we also know feeding modern dairy calves to this level makes sound economic sense,” he says.

Mr Watson points to studies showing that calves gaining 800g a day have the potential to produce 450 litres more milk during their first lactation, compared with calves reared on a traditional system gaining only about 500g per day. “Research also shows that feeding higher milk replacer levels leads to fewer calves failing to reach a second lactation. So providing the necessary nutrition to sustain rapid growth rates (>750g per day) during the first two months of life should not only result in more efficient and economical heifer rearing, but also deliver greater lifetime milk output when these replacement animals join the milking herd,” he says.

 He adds that if milk replacer intakes are restricted, calves simply look for nutrition from the other feeds available and invariably this means eating more concentrates.

“But this can limit early growth because the rumen is not developed to efficiently digest solid starter feeds until around four weeks of age,” Mr Watson points out.

“Calves on a high quality, precision-formulated milk replacer are receiving a highly concentrated energy source – so much so that to achieve the same energy intake from a solid starter feed requires a dry matter intake 1.5 times that of the milk. What’s more, further research has shown that there is a large amount of important early life development in the pre-weaned phase. The development of both mammary cells and the gut – and metabolic programming – all take place during this crucial early life period, so feeding high levels of milk enables us to take full advantage. It’s also the time when feed conversion efficiency is at its highest.”

Download our Farmers Guide on how much to feed the pre-weaned calf

The importance of feeding calves more milk has also been supported by recent research at Harper Adams University, albeit with male calves. In this study with British Blue x Holstein and Holstein bull calves starting at 15.4 days old until weaning six weeks later, calves fed 150g/day more milk replacer were 5.6kg heavier on average at 12 weeks of age.

“The team at Harper noted that the calves fed higher levels of milk were healthier and had better faecal and coat bloom scores, concluding that this was possibly because their immune status was better. They have also stressed that across all the calf trials they have done, calves recording lower daily liveweight gains never catch up, which really does highlight the importance of the industry capitalising on this highly efficient early growth phase.”

Cold weather

FFG-Environment-Impact of cold stress

Mr Watson says that during cold weather, calves may need to be fed even more milk. “When temperatures fall below 15°C calves under three weeks of age need more feed to hit growth targets and boost immunity.

“Under mild weather conditions (15°C-25°C), for dairy calves to grow at an average of 750g per day in their first few weeks of life they need to be fed at least 750g of milk per day alongside dry feed and water.

“But when the temperature plummets you need to feed more. And if the temperature drops below freezing, daily energy requirements increase by up to 30%.”

He says that high moisture levels or draughts just exacerbate the problem. “In fact, draughts of just 5mph can make calves feel 8°-10°C colder,” he says.

Download our Farmers Guide to Protecting Young Calves from Cold Stress

Mr Watson stresses that it is vital that all newborn calves receive adequate good quality colostrum (at least three litres within two hours of birth), whatever the ambient temperature.

“When it comes to milk feeding in cold weather, you really need to step up the level of milk solids by 100g per day for every 10°C temperature drop below 20°C,” he advises.

“This is best achieved by feeding milk more frequently and, in fact, this only mimics natural feeding behaviour when the weather gets colder. If calves are given the choice they will feed at least three times a day – and if given free access to milk, possibly up to 10 times a day – drinking little and often. Keeping bedding plentiful, clean and dry is also important, and consider too the use of thermal calf jackets. By not taking measures to either keep calves warmer or increase nutrition during extended periods of cold weather, you could be compromising animal health through a reduced immune function and daily growth will also be reduced. And it’s important to remember too to maintain good milk intakes even if calves are scouring,” he adds.

Next week we will look more closely at the nutritional requirement for protein in calves and how to optimiSe protein quality.

The Feed for Growth Programme provides practical advice, resources and support to help farmers grow better cows. Find out more.

Visit Volac at UK Dairy Day

VOLAC HAS PLENTY GOING ON AT UK DAIRY DAY THIS YEAR – visit us in the new calf rearing zone, which Volac is sponsoring and is part of the event’s farmer ‘Knowledge Trail’, and on stand H221 on Wednesday 13th September to find out more.

Come and explore the latest product and service innovations from Volac – all developed to help you make your dairy farming business more efficient and sustainable.

NEW computerised calf feeder and free consultation

Urban Parallel Pro June 2017-4

Take advantage of the very latest technology: the new Urban Alma pro incorporates automatic teat cleaning with disinfection and the ability to deliver doses of medications to individual calves.

A versatile new computerised calf feeder will be unveiled at the event. The new Urban Alma Pro represents the very latest in calf feeding technology and is particularly innovative because it incorporates automatic teat cleaning with disinfection. This new machine is capable of feeding up to 120 calves during the pre-weaned milk feeding period.

This new machine is a great step forward at a time when the industry is focusing on sustainable, high performance calf rearing. Helping to protect calves from teat-transmitted infections – thanks to an improved hygiene system that incorporates automatic teat cleaning with disinfection after every calf feed – and, uniquely, the ability to deliver the right dose of any necessary medications, such as electrolytes, to the right calf, at the right time, will be widely welcomed. The Urban Alma Pro also incorporates a range of other innovative features and benefits to help farmers rear better youngstock more efficiently,” says Jason Short from Volac.

He adds that the new computerised feeder is equipped with the latest touch screen technology to give users a simple overview of calf health and welfare – alerting rearers to any management issues and allowing for timely intervention as necessary – and full WiFi connectivity to allow remote access to the system on and off the farm.

“The Urban Alma Pro simplifies effective, hygienic calf feeding and eases work load for the farmer. The calf milk replacer is mixed precisely with water and an in-line temperature sensor ensures the milk always arrives at the teat at the correct temperature. The machine recognises an individual calf’s ear tag or collar when it enters the feeding station and allocates the correct milk portion and concentration accordingly. Once the calf has taken its feed the teat will re-track and be sprayed with cold water and a disinfectant solution. Machine hygiene status has also been enhanced to allow sanitisation with acid and alkali up to four times a day, which cleans and sterilises the feed lines and bowl.”

Compared with bucket feeding, the new machine will save producers 190 hours of labour time for every 120 calves reared. Group feeding also saves on individual pen bedding preparation.

Calf rearers interested in the new machine can ask for a free initial consultation to establish building layout and appropriate siting. Customers can also call on Volac representatives to set up the calf feeding programme and milk concentration levels according to individual requirements.

LEARN how to rear HEALTHIER calves

At 11.30am and 1.30pm Volac nutritionist Ian Watson will be talking about how to rear healthier calves in the calf rearing zone, which Volac is sponsoring.

FREE grass silage appraisals

FARM6971 copy (2)

With the important role of good quality silage in milk production, we’ll be offering farmers the opportunity to sign up for a number of free grass silage appraisals.

Available as part of Volac’s Cut to Clamp initiative launched earlier this year, which aims to help farmers produce consistently better silage by focusing on best practice methods for making and feeding silage, the appraisals will take the form of on-farm consultations with a silage expert.

They include an on-farm audit of the six key stages of cutting, wilting, harvesting, treating, clamping and feeding – aimed at identifying practical ways in which silage feed value and keeping quality can be improved.

“We realised there was a clear need for practical ways to improve silage-making after conducting a survey of over 100 dairy farmers before the start of the season,” Volac product manager, Jackie Bradley, explains.

“In the survey, nearly 80% of farmers felt they could make better grass silage, with just 19% saying they felt completely in control of how well their grass silage turned out after sealing the clamp. More significantly, the results also highlighted some significant shortcomings in silage-making techniques.

Good quality silage plays a crucial role in the sustainability of dairy farm businesses, and these are no-obligation, on-farm consultations. We’re able to offer a limited number at the event, and farmers can come to the stand to check availability throughout the day.

As well as recommendations for improving grass silage, Volac will also be offering timely tips for making maize silage, as the timing of the event coincides with preparations for forage maize harvest on many farms.

“This again follows further survey results on maize silage-making carried out last season, which also revealed shortcomings,” Mrs Bradley says.

“Despite 71% of respondents rating preventing aerobic spoilage as their biggest challenge when preserving maize silage, not all respondents were fully utilising all available methods to prevent it,” Mrs Bradley adds.

Enjoy UK Dairy Day. We look forward to welcoming you to stand H221.