The National Youngstock Association (NYA) was set up earlier this year to address mortality rates in youngstock across the UK.
And last week’s inaugural NYA conference at Hartpury College offered farmers and vets an insight into best practice methods to help maximise youngstock potential.
Vet Rob Drysedale from Westpoint Vet Group said most vets don’t see heifers from the age of 12 weeks until they calf down, describing youngstock as the “forgotten soldiers” of most farms.
“You need to start looking at youngstock as somewhere where you can make money from your farming system. And you should put together a very specific youngstock plan, with targeted health plans for specific age groups.”
Birth to Weaning
Successful calf rearing is dependent upon optimizing growth rates and minimizing health problems, says Dr Brian Aldrige from the Online Veterinary Academy.
Speaking to delegates, Dr Aldrige said producers should follow Dr Sheila McGuirk’s “Five ‘C’s of Calf Rearing” – colostrum, cleanliness, consistency, calories and comfort.
He said correct nutrition was paramount because rumen development takes place during this period, and poor growth rates are often a result of poor rumen development.
“The health of the rumen is determined hugely in the first 6-8 weeks of life as we lead up to weaning. It has to develop in size and also develop its lining which performs a lot of the nutrient work,” he added.
He recommended taking the time to develop the correct feed ratio, which should include milk, concentrates, fresh water, and forage for optimum rumen development.
In addition, he said correct recordkeeping of animal weight, disease incidence and mortality was essential to understanding where management changes could be made.
Weaning to Breeding
The weaning to breeding period is often overlooked by producers, despite the fact it incorporates the most complex period of change in an animal’s life.
And failure to correctly manage cattle during this period can impact directly on the future profitability and productivity of these animals, says Paul Cunliffe from the Wood Vet Group.
Speaking to farmers and vets, he said the period should be considered as two stages – weaning to six months old, and six months to breeding (15 months old), with the aim of achieving the following weight gains:
“You need a starting point if you are going to look at rate of growth, and the argument would be that if you are finding the birth to six months rate is not good enough, you will have enough time to make a change to it,” said Mr Cunliffe.
He recommended a series of steps to successful youngstock management:
• Wean calves when they are consuming >1kg concentrate
• Aim for 0.7-0.8 kg/day growth rate
• Don’t forget to monitor deaths
• Keep environments clean and dry and don’t overstock
• Initiate any vaccinations required
• Plan to calve at 24 months
Rearing heifers is an expensive business, making up 20% of total farm costs, meaning getting it right is essential on any farming operation, says Westpoint Vet Group director Jon Mouncey.
And working to obtain optimal growth rates and subsequently reducing the age of first calving is one way of minimizing costs – the cost of rearing a Holstein dairy heifer to point of calving is estimated to be £1,220.
“Many herds are first calving at less than 22 months. These younger calving heifers don’t necessarily have higher first lactation yields, but they will last longer and have better reproductive performance if we look after them,” said Mr Mouncey.
He said producers looking to calf down earlier should aim for conception by 13-15 months, by initiating puberty at 9-11 months (this is linked to bodyweight).
“Daily liveweight gain is not the most important management practise to reduce breeding age and age at first calving – I believe the age at first breeding and reproductive efficiency are integral at determining age at first calving,” he added.