Dairy farmers are being advised to consider ad-lib feeding this summer to boost dairy heifer calf-growth and lifetime yield potential.

According to Carr’s Billington’s calf specialist Clare Lawson, up to 1kg of daily liveweight gain (DLWG) can be achieved using this type of feeding system when birth weights are at least 35kg.

"When calves feed naturally on the cow, they typically drink between 11L and 15L per day," she said.

"Ad-lib mimics this instinct and can often lead to better growth rates than in a restrictive system.

"There’s also the added benefit that calves are fully weaned-off milk, on average, four days earlier on ad-lib systems - meaning feeding costs can be reduced.

There is evidence to suggest that if calves achieve an extra 0.2kg DLWG in the first eight weeks, it can result in 500 extra kilos of milk in their first lactation.

"Therefore, if you are able to go above this and achieve up to 1kg of DLWG, this could pay dividends once these cows reach the milking herd."

Optimsing performance

To optimise performance with the system, Lawson recommends feeding a top-quality milk replacement powder.

The advice is bolstered by the latest LifeStart Science research that’s revealed calves provided with a consistent, high plane of nutrition via ad-lib milk feeding, experience benefits post-weaning above those animals of the same genetic merit that are fed a lower plane of nutrition.

"Elevating the plane of nutrition pre-weaning not only leads to higher calf growth rates and improved heifer performance, but can also result in long-term positive impacts on fertility, survivability and lactation performance, providing a clear return on investment," she added.

"Farmers must also take steps to smooth the transition from milk to non-liquid diets to avoid a post-weaning growth check, which applies to both ad-lib systems and restrictive systems.

"Calves will need to be eating 1.5kg to 2kg of starter feeds before milk is fully taken away.

When feeding ad-lib, calves can be slowly weaned over ten days by gradually taking milk away for a certain period of the day, with the total milk-feeding period becoming shorter over a set period of time."

It is advised that farmers contact their nutritionist if target calf growth rates are not being achieved, in order to review all aspects of calf management.

"Every farm is very different in its system, so we focus on working closely with the farmer and their vet when offering advice," Lawson added.

"As a team, we can maximise the pool of ideas and help identify the best solutions to try, bringing in suggestions from our knowledge and experience of other similar farms and from trial work,” she concluded.