Back to basics with calf rearing in New Zealand

When a delegation from Ireland’s Bonanza Calf Nutrition visited New Zealand to learn more about dairy and calf rearing there, one was thing immediately clear.

Focusing on the basics pays dividends.

As with all calf rearers, the focus in New Zealand is on rumen development. But with a large land mass comes larger farms, with an average dairy herd size of 400 on the North Island, and 600 on the South Island.

Without getting the basics right, first and foremost, this poses great logistical challenges and an increased risk to the herd. 

Consistent care and attention

Throughout New Zealand, it’s clear that calf welfare is taken extremely seriously. By focusing on the basics of consistent care and attention, New Zealand farmers are maximising the health and growth of their calves.

They do this through specific management practices that have been tried and tested, covering all aspects of the calf’s early life – from housing and bedding to transition milk and bio security.

All the essential bio security issues are in place across every farm visited, and great attention is paid to the farm safety and calf origin. Calf health is monitored regularly, with calf weight gain aids prevalent across the country. Rearers in New Zealand had all set their own targets for weight gain, and daily monitoring, was a key factor in identifying any issues early and supporting calves that were showing problems.

Utilising all the available space

Space also plays an important factor to calf welfare, and housing was another simple aspect that was prioritised and gotten right across the country.

As is best practice, all bull calves and heifer calves were kept in separate housing to minimise labour effort when bull calves are moved off farm at an early age. This also helps to reduce any stress caused to the remaining calves and maintain a more stable environment through minimal contamination – one that’s less likely to attract any bacteria or infections that could challenges their immune systems.

Again, it’s about focusing on the basics to reduce risk.

Separating calves also increases available space in the housing sheds, another factor that was prominent across New Zealand, with at 3m2 per calf common on the farms the Bonanza team visited.

Calves thrive in spaces where they can run around and play, where sheds aren’t overcrowded or full of wet bedding and ammonia. There’s more cubic metres of air per calf and less stress.

There’s a wealth of anecdotal evidence to show growth rates improve (0.6 kg/day vs 0.9 kg/day) and calves are more content with this additional space – something British and Irish farmers should take note of.

New Zealand calves have low pneumonia rates too, in part because of the low stocking rate in housing sheds and in part because of the design of open sheds and shelters. All calves are encouraged to get fresh air as early as possible, with deep sheds used that allow air to flow without creating drafty or breezy conditions. 

Simple and efficient feeding methods

A priority on simplicity and efficiency, and getting all the basics right, extended to feeding methods too.

There were many simple techniques used by farmers across New Zealand to help ensure calves were getting all the feed they required. These included:

  • Grouping calves according to drinking speed, to minimise competition
  • Using designated people to feed calves, to keep the process consistent and identify any problems with feeding sooner
  • Introducing teat feeders on a trail feeder inside the pen, to get calves used to changes gradually
  • Deploying U-gates so trail feeders could be reversed directly against the pen without needing to drive around, reducing time spent moving calves in and out of pens and preventing contamination of the pen via the feeder wheels
  • Using ad-lib concentrate feeders with a lid, to prevent birds accessing the feed alone, with calves quickly learning to lift the lids.

Perhaps most importantly, the vast majority of farms visited in New Zealand prioritised the once a day feeding method to keep practices simple and effective.

The focus on once a day feeds

Across New Zealand, everyone was in agreement that rumen development is a crucial aspect to successful calf rearing. And the best way to drive this development was through once a day feeds.

This gave calves the time to explore and learn to eat concentrate feeds that help develop the rumen. With constant access to other feed and water throughout the day, calves don’t wait around for the second feed, but instead develop new tastes earlier, consume more alternate feeds, and successfully develop their rumen sooner.

The one a day method also reduces labour, which is vital given the size of farms in New Zealand.

Prioritising development & protection

The Bonanza team found that with the once a day feeds, the preference was for skimmed milk replacer, as it relates more closely to whole milk in terms of protein digestibility.

They spent time with calf researcher Paul Muir from On-Farm Research Ltd, on Pouwaka research farm. He conducted a large study comparing curding vs non-curding milk replacers and their effect on weight gain and calf health.

The results found that skim-based milk replacers that form a curd contributed to greater weight gains and a greater ability to fight disease. 

Paul confirmed that the basics are essential for good calf health and rapid rumen development, and that includes curding milk replacer, access to clean, fresh water and the use of transition milk.

That corresponds with what the Bonanza team saw across the country. Every farm visited used transition milk. This milk, produced immediately after colostrum, has a higher fat content and is full of antibodies, nutrients, vitamins and minerals. These line the gut of calves, protecting it from common diseases and promoting its development.

It’s another basic strategy, but one that pays dividends. Calves fed transition milk are more likely to resist challenges such as viruses like rotavirus and protozoa like cryptosporidium, thanks to the constant flow of protection.

By focusing on this protection and all the other small, basic factors that contribute to the calves early development, farms in New Zealand are thriving.

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“They are the healthiest calves I have,’’ he says.

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Producers of the renowned Shine range of milk replacers for calves and lambs.

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