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Growth Watch: Time to consider meal supplementation to calves


Ensuring animals achieve the desired levels of daily weight gain is a critical element in successful calf-to-beef systems. Séan Cummins, Teagasc GreenAcres Advisor, discusses this and gets updates from farmers Peter O’Hanrahan, Co. Kilkenny, and Jarlath Ruane, Co. Mayo.

The Advice

For dairy-beef calves, the primary target is gain 0.7kg/day from arrival on farm to housing in the first winter. To ensure animals meet this target, the strategic use of concentrate supplementation is required.

Early doors in this phase of the Teagasc Green Acres Programme, the time between September and turnout in the following spring was identified as a period of underperformance at farm level.

This was particularly the case where farmers tried to cut costs and removed meal completely between June and housing without introducing it for a period of time prior to the end of the grazing season.

From September on, calves were essentially sitting still and failing to achieve their daily weight gain targets. This reduction in performance not only left animals lighter going into the shed over the winter, it also pulled down the average daily gain of animals over their first year on farm.

Essentially, this meant that when it came to slaughter, animals either produced a lighter carcass or sale was delayed and a longer finishing period was required.

To counter act this, a management decision has been made on the participating farms in the programme to reintroduce concentrate supplementation at a rate of 1kg/head/day in the period prior to housing.

The timing of this inclusion depends on two factors – the quality of the grass available and its dry matter content.

The energy content of grazed grass is lower than that seen in the spring, with the difference being 19% lower in very stemmy autumn grass than leafy fresh spring grass.

Along with lower energy content, as autumn progresses and more rain arrives, the dry matter of grass tends to decline, often leading to animals becoming restless as they have graze for longer periods of time to achieve fullness on the basis of their dry matter intake.

By introducing concentrate supplementation in the coming weeks, especially when the weather begins to become wetter and grass dry matters decline, calves will be more content at grass and will find it easier to achieve their targeted daily liveweight gains.

The introduction of concentrates prior to housing also serves to lessen the impact diet change has on these animals when they are eventually housed, as they are already consuming 20-25% of their indoor diet prior to housing.

Peter O’Hanrahan, Thomastown, Kilkenny

  • Growth: 53kg DM/ha/day
  • Demand: 29kg DM/ha/day
  • Average farm cover: 1,091kg DM/ha
  • Stocking rate: 2.39LU/ha

The farm here is in a position where it is building grass on a weekly basis, as growth is running 24kg DM/ha/day ahead of demand and we are on target to reach peak cover by mid-September.

A clover-safe, post-emergence spray was applied to 24ac of reseeded ground last week. We hope to achieve two grazings off this ground before housing to help tillering and to promote a denser sward going forward.

In terms of meal feeding to calves, meal will be reintroduced to January / February-born animals in the coming weeks. This is something that has worked well on the farm here and resulted in heavier animals at housing last year. To put it into context the benefit meal feeding had, the 2020-born animals gained 0.76kg/day from rearing up until housing, whereas the 2019-born animals failed to hit the 0.7kg/day target, with the only difference in the management of these animals being the inclusion of concentrates from mid-September on.

The second bunch of calves, made up of March and April-born animals, have continued to receive concentrates since turnout and will do so up until housing.

Jarlath Ruane, Claremorris, Co. Mayo

  • Growth: 54kg DM/ha/day
  • Demand: 48kg DM/ha/day
  • Average farm cover: 955kg DM/ha
  • Stocking rate: 4.19LU/ha

I have spread 27 units of sulpha CAN per acre on all the grazing ground now for the last rotation. I envisage this will be the last application of chemical nitrogen this year.

My average cover on a recent measurement was 955kgdm/ha, with a growth of 54kg DM/ha/day, just ahead of a demand of 48kg DM/ha/day. Some forward stores have been housed now at this stage for feeding to slaughter, with a target slaughter date of late October or early November.

I reseeded two paddocks consisting of a total of around 7ac over the last three weeks. This received three bags of 10-10-20 at sowing, along with granular lime.

Land had gotten soft at the time of sowing so we couldn’t travel with the big lime spreader; granular lime was chosen to be spread with the fertilizer spreader instead to reduce compaction.

The Teagasc GreenAcres Programme Advisors have regular contributions here on Teagasc Daily. You might also like to keep up to date by signing up to their e-newsletter. Find out more about the Teagasc GreenAcres Calf to Beef Programme here.