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Excellent calf nutrition in the first week of life: the 1-6 rule

Excellent calf nutrition in the first week of life: the 1-6 rule

The peak spring-calving period is fast approaching or has just commenced on dairy farms nationally. To ensure calf health is maximised, colostrum management is critical, as it is the most important factor in calf health and vitality.

Where poor colostrum management practices are used, calves are more likely to have failure of passive transfer. Calves are born without passive immunity against infectious disease organisms and are dependent on colostrum – often referred to as biestings – to provide protection from viruses and bacteria until their own immune system becomes established.

In cases where this initial protection is not provided, increased rates of illness and mortality – as well as slower growth rates and reduced productivity in the milking herd are observed.

To help maximise future calf health and to ensure passive transfer is maximised, Teagasc’s Emer Kennedy and Alison Sinnot suggested the use of the following six point reminder to ensure excellent calf nutrition in the first week of life at the recent Teagasc National Dairy Conference.

The Calf 1-6 Rule:

  1. First milking: calves should only be fed high-quality colostrum/biestings (i.e. first milking >22% on Brix refractometer (Figure 1));
  2. Feed within two hours of birth: all calves need to be fed their first colostrum feed within two hours of birth, as this is when the maximum amount of antibodies can be absorbed from colostrum;
  3. Feed three litres: all calves should be fed three litres of high-quality colostrum;
  4. Four feeds of transition milk: following the first feed of colostrum, the calf should get at least four more feeds of transition milk (milkings two to six);
  5. Five litres of transition milk: all calves should be getting at least five litres of transition milk per day;
  6. Feed six litres of high-quality whole milk or milk replacer: by one week old all calves should be offered six litres of milk, either high-quality (i.e. not waste) milk or milk replacer split into at least two feeds.

In addition to this, calves should be provided with fresh water and concentrates from birth to encourage rumen development.

Testing colostrum using a brix refractometer

Figure 1: Testing colostrum quality using a Brix refractometer