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Ensuring the successful transition to grass with dairy-beef calves

Ensuring the successful transition to grass with dairy-beef calves

The busy calf rearing period is coming to an end on dairy calf to beef farms around the country. In this article, Teagasc DairyBeef 500 Advisor Tommy Cox looks at how to minimise setbacks when transitioning calves from indoor to outdoor life.

There is no argument that the milk feeding phase is an important period in the rearing cycle to ensure desired levels of live weight gain are achieved. The real skill in calf rearing, however, is transitioning calves from milk to solid feed. This is critical to ensure adequate rumen development so that - once calves are turned out - they able to digest and utilise grazed grass.

When and where to turnout calves?

Only correctly weaned and healthy calves consuming at least 1.5kg/day of concentrates should be turned out to pasture. A well sheltered paddock should be targeted to acclimatise calves to the outdoor setting. Turning calves out in unfavourable weather conditions in extremes of warm, wet or cold should be avoided, as potential upsets could result.

Ideally, to avoid the build up of pathogens and disease, the field in which calves are turned out each year should be alternated. However, this is not always practical. Paddocks that have had high levels of nitrogen applied or have very lush covers should be avoided immediately post turnout to prevent any digestive upsets. Once calves become acclimatised to the outdoors, grass pre-grazing covers of <1,000kg DM/ha should be targeted to encourage intakes. Offering calves straw for 5-6 weeks post turnout can also be beneficial, as it will provide a source of fibre - especially where grass covers are lush - but this is not near as fundamental as concentrate feeding.

Keeping concentrates in the diet

To aid the transition to grass, concentrate supplementation should be maintained post turnout for at least 5-6 weeks. Depending on weather conditions, a feeding rate of 1.5-2.0kg/head/day is recommended. This concentrate should be formulated from high-quality ingredients, be palatable, offered fresh daily and should be made available to calves as soon as they arrive on farm.

Farm case study

Teagasc DairyBeef 500 participants Jarlath and Austin Ruane farm part-time just outside Claremorris Co. Mayo. They operate a calf to steer beef system. The Ruanes are coming close to the end of the calf rearing phase and are in the process of getting calves out to grass.

Approximately 80 calves were reared this year on the farm - a mix of Holstein Friesan, early-maturing and continental male calves - all of which are slaughtered as steers at approximately 24 months of age.

Calves arrived on the farm at approximately three weeks of age. Calves are fed on an automatic milk feeder until they reach their targeted weaning weight of 85-90kg, at generally 55-60 days. From arrival, calves are introduced to a highly-palatable calf nut. From experience, calves can be slow enough to consume any significant levels of concentrates initially. However, once they start, intakes increase rapidly especially when milk volume starts to reduce. Jarlath feels keeping the troughs clean and feed fresh from the start is important to get calves to start consuming reasonable levels.

At weaning, calves generally would be consuming over 2kg of concentrates per day and they are kept on this level until turnout. Straw is used as a fibre source and calves have access to clean fresh water at all times. When calves are let out to grass first, they are put out to stronger covers in a paddock close to the farmyard. Heavier covers are chosen as these are less lush and contain more fibre, which is s preventative to any potential issues with summer scour. Straw is also offered to provide extra fibre and concentrate supplementation is continued for the first 5-6 weeks post turnout. Once calves get calves get accustomed to the diet, concentrates are reduced and the quality of grass that they are grazing is improved.

For more information on the DairyBeef 500 Campaign, click here.