Once a day feeding can slash workload by a third

Teagasc dairy specialist George Ramsbottom explains Jim Delahunty's approach to grass management at a farm walk at the Delahunty farm in Ballykinash, Carrig, Co Tipperary.
Teagasc dairy specialist George Ramsbottom explains Jim Delahunty's approach to grass management at a farm walk at the Delahunty farm in Ballykinash, Carrig, Co Tipperary.

Martin Ryan

Once-a-day feeding of calves over a month old, and earlier turnout of calves to pasture can reduce the workload on dairy farms by up to 36pc without affecting the performance of the calves, said Teagasc specialist advisor, George Ramsbottom.

In a survey carried out by Teagasc of 1,000 farmers participating in discussion groups, it was found that only 27pc of farmers are practicing once-a-day (OAD) feeding of calves and the average turnout date of calves in the groups was April 11.

“There is potential to reduce the labour associated calf rearing by up to 36pc by adopting OAD feeding and earlier turnout to grass,” said Ramsbottom (below).

However, he pointed out that OAD feeding before calves are four weeks old can create health concerns by overloading the abomasum.

In a Moorepark experiment, calves fed 15pc of their birth weight (six litres) in milk replacer from four weeks of age, either once daily or in two equally divided feeds, did not have an increased likelihood of developing diarrhoea and no differences in calf performance or health were observed between calves fed once or twice a day.

“This provides valuable information to farmers as it means labour input per calf may be reduced by utilising a once a day feeding regime in the knowledge that it has no unfavourable repercussions on the growth and health of calves.  However, if feeding milk once a day calves still need to be checked thoroughly twice a day,” he said.

On earlier turnout to grass he said that experiments at Moorepark determined that calves turned out at four to five weeks old could be reared without compromising weight gain and vitality compared to calves reared indoors during the milk feeding period. 

However, it was deemed necessary to provide overhead shelter from wind and rain for all calves outdoors. Calves went to grass at approximately three weeks old — if however, calves became ill or were showing signs of ill-thrift outdoors they were brought back in and treated, then they were returned outdoors post recovery.

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Daily weight gain from birth to weaning was higher for the group of calves reared outdoors (0.54 kg/calf/day) compared to those reared indoors (0.48 kg/calf/day). Interestingly, it was clear from this experiment that pre-weaning treatment affected post-weaning weight gain: weight of the outdoor reared calves tended to be higher (+9 kg) 72 days after mean weaning date.

Three housing systems were compared at Moorepark, indoors in conventional housing;  outdoors with low cost roofed shelters, and outdoors with straw bale shelters in a cross or ‘X’ shape

He said that facilities for calving can also have an impact on labour demands on the farm at the busy spring time.

Adequate area for calving is important.  A 100 cow herd with 90pc calving within six weeks will have a median calving date 15/16 days after the start of calving.

“This is 50 calvings in 15 days, which equates to an average of four calvings a day. The number of spaces required is then determined by how frequently cows are drafted out and how long they spend in the calving area,” he said.

The recommended area available for cows in calving areas is 10m2/head (both lying and feeding area).  An allowance of 15 places is the minimum recommended for such a calving profile or the equivalent of 150m2 for the herd.

He said that night watch during the calving period can be demanding and suggested that a person, farmer or employee could be dedicated to that shift for the period.

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