Katie Turner talks about the Calf Tracker Scheme

Recent research into calf rearing has shown that optimising heifer growth rates pre-weaning is vital for efficient heifer rearing and producing a healthy, high yielding dairy cow. The digestive system of a heifer is most efficient at converting food pre-weaning and therefore money and time spent here will reap rewards. Optimal development of the bovine stomachs is essential for efficient performance as an adult.

As we all know, colostrum is vital! It's the only way new-born calves can gain an immune system as they are born without any antibodies.  However, it also contains vital hormones that ‘programme’ the gut of a heifer to absorb nutrients efficiently throughout her life.

‘Metabolic programming’ is a natural phenomenon occurring in humans and animals, where influences outside of the genome change the expression of genes. A very good example of this is seen in honey bees. All of the females are born with the same genome, even the queen, yet as an adult she weighs double what the workers weigh and lives 10 times as long. This is all down to what she is fed as a larvae. She receives high quality ‘royal jelly’ whereas the other females are fed foodstuffs on a much lower plane of nutrition. This is where metabolic programming comes into play. The high quality nutrition causes the expression of certain genes that all the females have the potential to express but cannot as they have not been fed as well as larvae.

Recent research has found this phenomenon to also occur in cattle and simply shows that how a calf is fed and managed in the first 8 weeks of life can determine her metabolism and therefore production later on in life. A summary of 13 recent studies has calculated that increasing daily live weight gain pre-weaning from 500g per day to 1kg per day can have significant impacts on first lactation yield.  On average, the calves gaining 1kg per day gave 832L milk more than their counterparts.

The calf tracker scheme intends to get farmers and vets recording data, analysing the results and talking about calves. The aims are to produce a well grown calf at weaning who is a competent ruminant, prevent and control any diseases, gives the farmer the ability to pick out heifers to keep based on pre-weaning growth rates as well as giving returns on investment. The data we aim to record is growth rates from birth to weaning, mortality rates from birth to weaning, pneumonia rates, scour rates and total protein/BRIX value in calves’ blood up to 7 days old to access passive transfer.

The plan is to provide farms who wish to join the scheme with a pack containing a weigh band, folder for recording the data and an information booklet. The data can then be analysed and discussed with the vet and at future benchmarking meetings.

For more information about the scheme please don’t hesitate to ask your vet or send an email for the attention of Katie to info@larkmead.co.uk.

Katie recently joined our farm vet team, having graduated from the University of Bristol. Katie has a particular interest in cattle fertility, youngstock and infectious diseases.