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Incorrect mixing of calf milk replacer may undermine its nutritional quality or even make calves sick, Hughes says.
Best practise is for farmers to choose products that deliver the correct nutritional components to support liveweight gain and rumen development.
“We typically look at the cost per tonne or the cost per kilo,” Hughes told Dairy News. “We need to look at the whole product. We need to consider the best way to use each product and what is actually in it.”
This was one focus of a Dairy Womens Network ‘Successful Calf Rearing’ workshops run by Hughes with Fonterra FarmSource.
“We talked about the importance of looking at the mixing ratios for different calf milk replacements,” she says.
“And looking at what the ingredients are in different calf milk replacements and the ingredients in different calf meals.”
Among other key take-home messages emphasised at the workshops was the need to carefully read the bag label.
“Because everyone is so busy and frantic at this time of year, which is totally understandable, we are probably not taking the time to read the labelling,” Hughes said.
The label on some milk replacer packs may say ‘mix 150gm of calf milk replacer with up to 1L of water’. What it actually means is add it to 850ml, she says.
“Otherwise it will say add to 1L. Then you take 1L of water and you add your 150gm of calf milk replacer.”
Getting the ratios wrong can have consequences. “From a digestion point of view, we want to make sure that when calves drink milk or calf milk replacer, the oesophageal groove within the calf acts like a drafting gate to divert the milk down in the abomasum rather than the rumen. Otherwise the milk can ferment when it is in the rumen.
“If we are diluting the calf milk replacer too much, ie if we are adding 1L of water instead of 850ml of water, we might find that we are diluting the amount of milk proteins present in the calf milk replacer solution.
“It can end up going into the rumen because there are not enough milk proteins to create that diversion.
“The consequences can be poor growth and this may also make calves sick because they are unable to digest it properly because it is essentially going into the wrong stomach.
“So a key message is to read the bag labels.
“If we want to double check how much to feed or what the ratio is, then call the people you bought it from. We want to support farmers.”
What’s in that calf meal?
On a calf meal bag the label may promote the dry matter and crude protein content, Hughes says.
“To find out more information, look at your feed supplier’s website. This will typically give you the most up-to-date specifications on other feed components such as starch, fibre and fat levels.
Hughes says everyone -- not just people in agriculture -- looks at and compares the cost of the weight of product.
“We don’t dive deep into understanding the difference in value of what goes into a product.
“It is the same as with a bag of chips. We look at the cost per bag. We don’t, for example, wonder about the amount of nutritional value in the chips. We look at it from a price view of things.”
To understand the numbers behind “what good looks like”, the National Research Council (NRC) is a global organisation which looks at the research on, metabolically, the best possible way of feeding an animal.
“With calves, they talk about the amount of energy required for a calf. For a young new calf, the desired energy level is 13MJME/kgDM of meal. This decreases to 12.5MJME for a 6-week-old calf. Taking time to find out what the specifications are allows better understanding of what is being purchased.
“We work hard to grow the best calves we can, including having an economical system to develop the rumen as quickly as possible.
“The reason for reading the label is the many products that, say, meet the protein requirement. If a farmer is looking for 20% protein calf meal they may see mention of the 20%, but then the product varies in energy or starch content.
“You could be buying product ‘A’ at $900/tonne, and you have product ‘B’ at $950/t, but they both list 20% protein. Automatically we go for the cheaper one instead of taking time to note that the $950/t product may contain more energy or a higher starch content.”
Looking for good calf feed requires looking at all aspects, Hughes says.
“If we want high energy, what is the price per unit of energy? We also want good vegetable proteins, such as canola, cottonseed and soy.
“When we talk about having no fillers, it’s due to the size of the calves’ rumen. It is very restricted on space, so every mouthful needs to count. Products such as palm kernel help in diluting the price but supplies only about 4% starch. A really good calf meal has ideally about 35-40% starch.
“If we are aiming to meet the ideal starch percentage by feeding palm kernel then we need to feed 10 times more to achieve the starch percentage.”
Hughes says the overall message is to take time to read about what the product contains. But if you are stuck or don’t understand – for instance there may be acronyms on labels – then ask the questions.
“Ask what the acronyms mean, or what the raw ingredients are, or what impact it all has on the product, and why it is in there. It’s best to do all your product research before the season begins. Then you know what you are doing and why you are doing it.