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The art of developing rumens

The digestive tract of the neonatal calf is dramatically different to that of the adult ruminant. When a calf is first born they have a very small rumen, only a fraction of the size it will eventually need to be when the animal is older and consuming a much higher fibre diet.

A key focus of the calf rearing period is to stimulate the rumen of the animals to start growing in preparation for weaning time. All this needs to happen while ensuring calves are hitting growth targets themselves and are as healthy as possible. Nutritious, health-supporting milk and a good-quality starter feed are key components of a successful calf rearing system and can help take some of the stress and risk out of calf rearing.

After good colostrum intake has been achieved in the first day of life, milk becomes the most important source of nutrients for a calf. Feeding calves transition milk from the first milkings and waste milk from treated cows carries the risk of transmitting Johne’s, BVD, salmonella and other diseases such as Mycoplasma bovis. These and other animal health concerns help to justify the use of well formulated calf milk replacer beyond a simple cost-price advantage.

Offering a grain-based calf feed in early life is the key to kick starting rumen development in the first few weeks. Although the calves will not eat much, they will start to develop the all-important habit of eating a hard feed and intakes will snowball from there.

Top tips for encouraging early hard feed intake

  • Choose a high-quality starter feed with no palm kernel. A key attribute should be a low-dust feed. It’s all about the mouth feel for a calf and they don’t like eating fines. NRM Moozlee is a great choice as it is high in starch with the added benefit of a bit of lucerne chaff which is very attractive to young calves.
  • Hard feed can be offered to calves from very early in life – they will not eat large amounts at first, but it is important to have it available so they start to develop good hard feed eating habits. Remember to increase amounts offered as they increase in appetite.
  • Always make sure the feed on offer is fresh. Do not put large amounts of feed out and leave it to go mouldy or contaminated by vermin. Little and often is the key.
  • Calves maintain a lot of mouth activity after a milk feed – hand feeding some hard feed immediately after their milk feed can help get them used to the texture and flavour.
  • If calves seem a bit slow to take to the hard feed, double check how much milk you are feeding. Overfeeding milk can depress appetite for other food sources.
  • Some long fibre such as hay or straw is important for calves to start practising rumination. However, if calves are overconsuming long fibre it can depress their appetite for the hard feed. Making the long fibre a little harder to get at, such as stuffed inside hay racks, can help to make sure calves just take a little bit each day.
  • Always have fresh water available – water is critical for hard feed intake and development of the rumen.

For further information, contact your local Nutrition Specialist.

Article supplied by Stacey Cosnett, Nutritionist.