Calves are the future of the herd. By investing in your calves and ensuring they are healthy, have good growth rates and have strong immune systems, you are maximising future reproductive performance and maximising the lifetime milk production of your herd.
Correct handling in the first moments of life are crucial; ensuring calves receive sufficient, good quality colostrum, as well as optimal pre-weaning nutrition (including a good quality calf starter) and good mineralisation are key to a healthy, fast growing calf. Cows should get up and assist the calf within 30 minutes of calving; the cow should also pass manure and drink water at this time. The cow should be allowed to lick the calf, as this stimulates calf’s circulation and can improve absorption of colostrum from the gut. Check the calf’s nostrils for mucus and dip the navel in a suitable disinfectant; this is important to prevent infection. Colostrum is extremely important; before the colostrum is milked or the udder is suckled, be sure to clean the cow’s udder with a mild disinfectant. Calves need to receive colostrum within the first 24 hours of life, as after this the gut is no longer able to absorb the antibodies from the colostrum. The first six hours of life is when antibody absorption is best, but the sooner after birth the better. The calf should receive 2-4 litres of undiluted colostrum in the first six hours of life and 2-4 litres in the second six hours. If calves do not get enough antibodies during the first 24 hours they have a high future risk of disease and death. The level of antibodies in a cow’s colostrum will be decreased by milking the cow before she has calved, if she has leaking teats or by poor nutrition of dry cows. Ensuring a dry cow mineral such as Vital Dry is fed to the mother in the last two months is recommended to improve the plane of nutrition of the dam.
After birth, calves should be introduced into individual calf pens in a well lit, well ventilated but draught- free environment. Calf pens should be of adequate size, allowing the calf to stand and move around freely. Pens should be free draining, but well bedded for calf comfort. Bedding should be refreshed daily and changed frequently (at least once a week). If calf pens are on grass, these pens should be moved regularly to prevent the build up of disease or worms. If possible, calf pens should allow some social interaction between calves to minimise stress when re- housed into groups. Calves should be able to see each other from some point within the pens. Ideally, calves should be able to move out of the pen into a meshed area allowing visual awareness of other calves.
When raising calves, the aim is to ensure they are healthy, have a strong immune system and attain optimal weight gain so they can be weaned at 8-10 weeks old. The calves need optimal nutrition to ensure immune development is sufficient. It is also important that calves are not overfed, and that their feed remains as consistent as possible, avoiding sudden diet changes that can lead to digestive problems. Around 4 litres of milk should be fed daily, as feeding too much milk will discourage dry matter intake. Milk from animals with mastitis should not be fed to calves. If fermented milk is used, it is important it is stored at a low temperature during fermentation to prevent it spoiling.
Provide a good quality calf mineral, such as Vital Ndama, from the first few days of life, fed with calf pellets. A sprinkle will do to start with, which should be increased to about 50g by 2-3 weeks of age. Minerals are needed for growth, immunity and general health. As we are limiting the milk consumed by the calf, we are also limiting mineral supply; therefore, we need to provide a supplement such as Vital Ndama. Key minerals include copper, zinc and selenium. Copper is linked to energy metabolism and deficiency can negatively impact growth rates. Zinc is important to ensure skin is healthy and not susceptible to infections, such as ringworm. Selenium is important in immune and muscle function.
For the first two months of life, the calf is monogastric and, therefore, cannot digest forage; it gets most of its nutrients from milk. The rumen does not start developing until it is triggered by solid nutrients. Calf starter (calf pellets) is essential, to trigger rumen development and ensure the rumen microbial population begins to grow and papillae (in the lining of the rumen) begin to develop. A good quality calf starter should be fed ad- lib from around the first 3-4 days of life and mineralisation of the diet should begin at the same time with a good quality calf mineral such as Vital Ndama added in small quantities to the solid diet. Water is also essential, and should be provided ad-lib from birth. Water goes straight into the rumen and provides a moist environment for the microbes. There is a myth in Kenya that if you feed too much water to calves they will drink too much and become ill; this is not true. If a calf is taught by the farmer that water is the same as milk (by feeding twice daily in buckets just as milk is fed), the calf will want to drink a lot because she is hungry and she thinks the water is food. If she is left with a bucket in her pen from birth, she will instinctively know it is water and drink only when she is thirsty. Forage should be fed to calves from 21 days after the introduction of pellets, as they cannot digest it before then. This forage should be soft and dry hay or if coarser straw is used it should be a short chop.
Weaning is very stressful for the calf and without proper management calves will fall behind in their development. Calves should be weaned at about 8-10 weeks of age, as earlier weaning increases solid feed intake sooner, thus improving growth rates. When a calf is eating 1.5kg of pellets daily, this shows us that the rumen is sufficiently developed and they are ready for weaning. Weaning should occur once calves reach such a concentrate intake, rather than targeting weaning purely on age, as some calves may not be consuming sufficient intakes to be weaned at 8 weeks. Abrupt weaning is best for the animals, as it encourages a more rapid increase in dry matter intake and reduces the period of stress.
Good quality hay should be gradually increased to provide energy and fibre, to promote healthy rumen function, grow the rumen in volume and prevent acidosis. A grain based calf rearer diet with adequate protein levels should also continue to be fed, with continued daily feeding of Vital Ndama. Vital Alfa can also be introduced to this ration as the high protein levels will support significant calf growth and help in providing fodder for the growing microbial population in the rumen. Ideally, calves should remain in individual pens for a further 7-14 days post-weaning to monitor performance and ensure weaning stress does not compromise health and development. Following successful weaning, calves can be re-housed into small groups of similar size (body weight) heifers. Groups of 6-10 calves are ideal, but it is important that calves have sufficient room to lie down and eat without any risk of bullying or stresses associated with social interaction. Intakes of concentrate/pelleted fodder should continue to be monitored and individual calves checked daily for health and intakes. Calves should remain on a good quality calf starter, containing grain, along with Vital Alfa and a good quality hay or forage until at least 4 months of age. Following this, a calf rearing concentrate (ideally 16-18% crude protein) and good quality forage including Vital Alfa should be fed. It is essential that the calf diet continues to be supplemented with a specific calf mineral such as Vital Ndama, whether within the diet or as a free-access supplement. Ensure that the mineral supplement does not contain added iron. Additional iron will affect an already challenged copper availability, causing ‘lock-up’ which can result in poor growth rates and a ginger or brown colour of the coat. Vital Ndama contains no intentionally added iron, three types of copper compound to combat copper "lock-up" and is specifically formulated for calves reared under typical Kenyan conditions.