Over the last three years of the Thrive programme, the general consensus has been that feeding 1kg/day meal to calves at grass over the entire season was a benefit. But with high meal costs, can farmers afford to feed this season?

All farmers are feeding meal at least up until early June when calves are settled at grass, well and truly over the weaning period and consuming decent levels of grass each day.

It is at this point that the debate starts – can I cut out meal feeding to calves when grass quality is good during the summer months and reintroduce it again in autumn? Or, should I keep calves going on 1kg/head/day throughout the whole summer?

The economics

The answer to the question is not a simple one. Grass fanatics would argue that the feed value of a kilo of dry matter (DM) of grass is equally as good as a kgDM of meal during the summer months and that putting a kg of meal into the diet at a cost of 44c/kg, at the expense of a kg of grass at a cost of 12c/kg DM, makes no economic sense whatsoever. This year, above all, it is hard to disagree with the fact.

Additional benefits

However, where it becomes less clear-cut is when you consider the other small, yet not insignificant, benefits of feeding a low level of meal to calves at grass. The first is that it is a great way of herding cattle. It makes picking out a sick animal all the easier, as any animal that does not come running to the trough for feeding usually needs investigating further. Sick animals could be picked up sooner in this case. With the majority of dairy-beef systems operated alongside off-farm employment, this offers a time saving benefit.

Another benefit of meal feeding is during periods of poorer weather, when grass DM is lower and calf intakes may be reduced. Feeding 1kg/day meal will ensure a decent level of energy intake, even when conditions are poor.

Concentrate feeding should never be used to mask poor grassland management or poor grazing quality. No farm gets grazing management right 100% of the time, but by walking the farm regularly and keeping a close eye on grass supply, grazing quality can be improved vastly on many farms.

Dairy-beef stock need access to fresh grass at least twice a week, more often if you are to fully maximise daily liveweight gains from pasture.


Most of the Thrive farmers are trying to get stock slaughtered off grass at the end of the second grazing season at between 19 and 22 months of age. There is, therefore, little room for error in terms of needing cattle to perform every day they are on the farm. There is little point in saving 90kg of meal over three months of the first summer if it results in having to feed cattle for longer pre-slaughter, or rehousing stock for a partial second winter period.

The general consensus between the Thrive farmers at the moment is that if weather conditions allow, and where grass supply and quality is good, then meal feeding could be stopped for a number of weeks during the summer months for the majority of calves. The lightest batch of calves would probably benefit from continued meal feeding.

Try to ensure grass quality ahead of stock is the best quality it can be. Never use concentrate feeding to mask poor grassland management.

Top tips to minimise impact of high meal prices

If farmers are feeding meal all summer, there are a number of steps to take to minimise the impact of higher meal prices.

  • Focus on grazing quality and try to improve the sward on offer to stock over the entire grazing period. For calves, aim for sward heights of 8cm to 10cm pre-grazing.
  • Buy meal in bulk as much as possible: Small bags of meal have been hit with price hikes on the double. Firstly, meal prices have increased, but also the cost of bags, bagging, pallets and transport have all increased, meaning the differential between bulk feed and bagged feed has never been greater. Buying half or three-quarter tonne bags, or using small meal bins that can be filled at the local feed merchant, will help reduce meal costs.
  • Simple rations: There is no need for fancy rations for calves at grass. During the rearing phase, when you are trying to get calves eating meal initially, there is a need for more specialised rations, but at grass a simple two or three-way mix is sufficient.
  • Lower protein rations: Protein levels in grass during the summer months should be excellent and so high protein rations are not required. What we are trying to do is boost energy intake in calves. Therefore, 14% to 16% crude protein should be more than adequate.
  • Skipping a day feeding: On the demo farm, where calves are moving at least twice a week to fresh grass, you can noticeably see the difference in meal demand the day after moving to a fresh paddock when grass DM is high. Calves are clearly getting their requirements from the grass and are slower to consume their meal. If you wanted to skip a day’s feeding after moving stock, or during a period of good weather when grass supply and quality is excellent, there will be little or no effect on calf thrive. It is the day before moving and during the wet weather that it is important to be out with meal.