Milk payout is high this season and it is getting trickier to budget for summer – surely getting the calves off-farm as soon as possible is a great idea, isn’t it? Not necessarily! Weight gain from now until 1st May is crucial for setting these animals up for a long productive life in your herd – is the short-term gain going to cause long-term pain?
This article discusses the 26 weeks from the start of November to the start of May for spring-calving dairy herds. Whichever option you choose, the aim must be to achieve target weights at 9 months old (i.e. 1st May) – these targets are not negotiable.
The benefits of grazing calves off-farm:
For the majority, it comes down to a combination of:
- One less mob on-farm to deal with i.e. reduced direct labour/time involvement.
- Less farm pasture eaten by calves leaves more available for other uses, primarily to feed dairy cows.
- Less supplement is needed for the milking herd – this is particularly relevant when payout and supplement costs are high. Let’s look at an example: a Friesian-cross calf targeting a mature liveweight of 450kg would need about 960kgDM in the 26 weeks discussed. Paying $8-9/head/week at grazing translates to ~22-24cents/kgDM during a time when purchased supplemental feeds are above 40c/kgDM.
- Timing of feed requirements – calves’ feed demands increase as they get bigger and older. As the summer dry conditions hit and feed supply reduces on-farm, the calf requirement increases, taking relatively more feed from other stock. There is a real risk of calves being underfed during this period, meaning they won’t meet those non-negotiable weight targets.
- Feed composition – calves require a fairly high protein diet over summer (higher than summer pasture often provides) to ensure target daily growth rates. Therefore, they need to be supplemented with an appropriate feed or have a crop area allocated to them.
- Reduced risk of Johne’s disease. Calves are at risk of picking up Johne’s Disease (JD) from infected pasture up until about one year of age, so having the calves off-farm can be part of a wider risk management strategy on farms trying to reduce the risk of JD in their herd.
The benefits of grazing calves on-farm:
- Biosecurity is maintained – Although your stock at grazing may be run as “one mob”, grazing blocks are not closed systems. Therefore the risk of introducing other diseases into your herd is much higher when the calves go off-farm.
- Monitoring – Often when calves are off-grazed, it becomes a case of “out of sight and out of mind”, and they are left to the grazier to monitor. All calves need to be regularly monitored for weight and condition, which is often easier at home. Having them grazing not far from home, may mean you can visit them regularly and are aware of what the weather/feed conditions may be at the grazier, so you can pre-empt any shortages with good discussion.
- Feed options – Calves grazed off-farm in an “all grass” system often fail to meet target weights in dry summer years; this is obviously very dependent on the combination of the grazier and their farm. As mentioned above, calves require a highish protein diet over summer, usually including supplement or crop, to ensure target daily growth rates are met. Graziers may not be willing/familiar with such options, therefore an early, proactive consultation with the grazier around the summer feeding plan is crucial to success.
- Calves on-farm are completely under your control:
- Smaller calves and younger calves can be given more individual attention
- You can feed what you need to achieve target weights and have access to any on-farm supplements (where appropriate) to fill the gaps for the calves.
This season, grazing for calves is hard to find. Here are some things to consider if you can’t find grazing off-farm:
- Grazing calves well is not easy, and many graziers simply will only take “yearlings”.
- The key to grazing calves at home is to budget correctly. i.e. if you have 100 calves at home, that’s roughly 100tDM more feed you need, and while grass only may be enough early in summer, high-quality supplements are nearly always required.
- To minimise the impact on the dairy operation, a recent trend is to plant crop for your youngstock and add supplement feed to that as required. Usually the crop is chicory, but plantain also works (note the crop needs to be a leafy crop, not a bulb crop for calves). One hectare of chicory per 25 calves will provide about 4kgDM/calf/day. Chicory needs to be planted immediately (i.e. 10-15th October) to be available from mid-December.
- calves then graze the chicory on a 20-22d rotation. It’s essential to back fence and have a portable water trough in use to avoid over-grazing the residual.
- when chicory is not enough, then PKE and/or high quality grass silage can be added (PKE no more than 2kg/calf/day). Read this article for more information.
- If you are keeping your calves at home, ensure you have a discussion with the whole farm team so everyone knows who is responsible for the calves and how they can be best managed. Contracts between farm owners and the contract milker or 50:50 sharemilker will usually include a clause about calves at home, so ensure that everyone is on board with the changes and understands what effects it could have on the farm system, including financial impacts, utilisation of resources and farm staff.
For more information regarding growing your youngstock talk to your vet. They can put together a detailed animal health plan to help ensure your future herd gets the best possible start.
Other Anexa resources you may find helpful: