Farm Ireland

Monday 19 February 2018

Get calf feed requirements right early on to stimulate rumen and bag profits

Fergal Doherty, Carrigart, Co Donegal, shows off the Champion Simmental at the Letterkenny Show Society's bull show and sale at Raphoe Livestock Mart
Fergal Doherty, Carrigart, Co Donegal, shows off the Champion Simmental at the Letterkenny Show Society's bull show and sale at Raphoe Livestock Mart

Gerry Giggins

We are currently in the middle of the peak calving period and all classes of calves are meeting strong demand to fulfill the improving export trade and strong local demand.

The price of calves and inputs are significantly higher than they have been in recent years, which means greater attention needs to be paid to getting the young animal off to the best possible start.

If selling young calves, apart from the breed and sex of the calf, the animal's appearance will have a huge influence on its sale price. Ragged, poorly done calves will never command a satisfactory price.

Calves are not born with the rumen function of older animals, so stimulating the rumen from an early age will set it up for the rest of its life. The new calf's true stomach (abomasums) only functions in the early stage of life, so developing the rumen as early as possible by including the correct long fibre and concentrate will reduce the amount of whole milk or replacer required up to weaning.

Calves are generally traded at the 14 -21 day stage, so a lot of the early nutrition management is outside the control of the farmer who eventually rears the calf.

Calves that are receiving whole milk or milk replacer need a suitable concentrate and a fibre source that will encourage liveweight gain and skeletal development. Milk replacer for young calves should be high in protein -- 21pc plus -- and contain good energy and trace element levels.


Hay is generally seen to be the preferred long fibre source but clean, fresh barley or wheat straw is significantly better than most hays. I advise the use of straw regularly without any problem, and the appearance of the calves and subsequent performance supports its use.

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Off-the-shelf concentrates for young calves are hugely varied in quality and this year, particularly, they are very costly.

Concentrate for young calves should be palatable, dust free and contain quality protein sources and digestible fibre.

Inclusion rates of ground cereals should be kept to a minimum in the ration, therefore coarse mixes are more suitable than calf pellets.

Flaked maize should be included in the starter stage (first 10 weeks) to improve the coarseness of the mix and also to increase the energy levels.

Molasses will improve palatability and will eliminate harmful dust.

Beet pulp is the preferred digestible fibre source but, since we lost our native source of beet pulp shreds, a lot of imported sources of beet pulp create some problems for young calves as they are high in dry matter and densely compacted. It's not uncommon to see these nuts being rejected in the bottom of the meal trough.

Citrus pulp, while it isn't ideal in calf rations, may have to be used if there isn't a suitable source of beet pulp. Rolled barley and rolled oats are the preferred homegrown cereal sources for inclusion in calf rations.

Wheat is low in neutral detergent fibre (NDF) so should be avoided unless it is in a cooked and flaked form.

If home mixing, there is significant scope for cost saving and producing excellent-quality calf mixes. The mix can be made with the minimum of ingredients. Simply, a cereal source, a digestible fibre source, molasses, soya bean, flaked maize and minerals and vitamins will provide all that's needed. Homegrown sources of protein, such as peas and beans, should also be used if available.


Up to the age of 10 weeks the mix needs to be formulated to supply a crude protein of 20pc and an energy level of 12.8ME (mg/kg). After 10 weeks, the protein level should be reduced by 2pc but the energy level maintained.

As the calves are developing rapidly, correct mineral and vitamin supplementation is essential. As are adequate levels of calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D as part of an overall mineral and vitamin supplement.

Gerry Giggins is a nutritionist with Richard Keenan and Co Ltd. Email:

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