As part of the current dairy-beef research programme at Teagasc Grange, in excess of 150 calves are purchased annually.

The current research focus involves the purchase of male calves sired by bulls identified to be of divergent genetic potential for age at slaughter within the Angus (AA) breed, as well as calves by the four highest-EBI Holstein Friesian (HF) sires on the active bull list. All calves of interest are from Holstein Friesian dams.

As these calves are purchased to be enrolled in a research trial, there are certain limitations to ensure the validity of the study.

For example, multiple sources must be used, with calves from each sire being purchased from different farms, and calf selection isn’t based on their quality, to get a representative sample of the national population.

This means that calves are purchased from 35 to 40 individual farms throughout Ireland, arriving at Teagasc Grange at three weeks of age.

Calf health and performance was exceptional for 2020, with a mortality rate of less than 1% over the calf-rearing phase, a testament to the breeders and the dedicated farm staff at Teagasc Grange.

The first 12 weeks of calves’ lives are the most resource-intensive. However, this period will determine much of the animal’s lifetime performance, so every effort must be made to maximise the return from the resources used, striking a balance between animal performance and production cost.

This article focuses on key areas which can improve calf health and performance.

The procurement of calves begins by assessing if a herd is suitable. This is done by gaining a history of herd health, vaccination programme (scour), colostrum and feed management and by visually assessing the health of the herd, as well as the environment in which they are kept.

If any issues arise in these areas, no individual calf is purchased from these herds.

When assessing the individual calf, they must:

  • Have a dry navel, free from swelling or discharge.
  • Have no discharge from the eyes or nose.
  • Have no temperature or laboured breathing .
  • Be bright and alert.
  • Be free from scour.
  • Be well hydrated, displaying elasticity of the skin.
  • A well-devised vaccination protocol is key to achieve low levels of illness. Table 2 provides a vaccination timeline of calves from arrival on the farm to boost immunity against bacterial/viral pathogens.

    Prior to the arrival of calves, facilities and feeding equipment are sterilised to reduce the incidence and spread of disease. The inclusion of a whiteboard in the calf shed allows for notes on herd and individual calf health to be recorded and clearly displayed to all staff.

    The low levels of mortality during the calf-rearing phase are facilitated by regularly inspecting calves throughout the day by experienced personnel, with temperatures routinely taken from calves assessed to be “off form”, allowing for early diagnosis and intervention.

    From arrival on the farm at three weeks of age all calves in 2020 were reared on 4l/day (0.5kg solids) of milk replacer per day (23% protein, 20% oil, 7% ash and 0.1% fibre), fed at 12.5% concentration, split between two feeds. This milk feeding level was adapted based on the previous two years’ data, where half of the calves purchased were reared on either 4l or 8l of milk replacer daily from three weeks of age, which resulted in similar levels of performance, from weaning through to slaughter and a €33/hd reduction in calf-rearing costs.

    Importantly, feeding a reduced level of milk (4l) promoted a high intake of concentrates from three weeks of age, aiding rumen development and the transition phase. The transition phase occurs between weeks four and eight, when calves move from pre-ruminant to ruminant, with the rumen taking over the main responsibility of feed digestion. The objective of this period is to encourage young calves to increase their intake of solid feed, to enhance rumen development and increase performance. A successful transition phase will minimise stress and maintain performance of calves when weaned from a milk replacer diet.

    From arrival on the farm, concentrates are offered ad-lib in addition to high-quality roughage (barley straw) and water, with calves consuming 1.0kg of concentrates daily. In 2020, a target weaning weight of 90kg was adapted, resulting in calves being 10.8 weeks of age at weaning, having been fed on the farm for a total of 53 days, over which time calves had an ADG of 0.75kg.

    Calves are weaned gradually over a five-day period, with minimal stress due to the low volume of milk being fed and the high level of concentrate intake being achieved. Table 1 shows that attention to detail during the calf-rearing stage, in terms of health and nutrition contributes greatly to high levels of animal performance, enhancing their ability to fully utilise grazed grass throughout the first grazing season.

    Table 3 outlines the costs involved with calf-rearing and when combined with calf purchase make it the most costly production stage of the animal’s life. However, from the itemised list and the 4l milk feeding level imposed, little scope exists to further reduce, while maintaining the high levels of calf health and performance achieved.

    Despite the need to frontload costs to the calf-rearing phase, scope exists on farms for improved labour efficiency associated with calf rearing. Investing in a well-implemented vaccination programme will help to achieve performance targets, while reducing costs through reduced incidence of mortality and morbidity.

    Typically, over the first grazing season these calves cost a further €75 to €100, depending on the level of concentrate supplementation throughout the summer (grass only v 1kg/hd/day) up until housing in late November.