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31 Mar 2023

Genetics and nutrition - a good marriage for calf development

Proper calf-rearing programmes will pay off in the long run as healthy calves will end up as productive heifers and cows.

However, if any aspect of calf management is neglected, then that animal could have setbacks in her lifetime and not reach her full potential.

This is why good calf nutrition and genetics work together hand in hand as essential tools to produce a healthy, productive dairy herd.

VikingGenetics experts travel worldwide to help farmers with their own herd genetic improvements and offer advice on the proper feeding and management of calves.

VikingRed calf development

The link between nutrition and genetics

John Kelso is a ruminant nutritionist and head of distributor sales for VikingGenetics. He says the link between nutrition and genetics needs to be highlighted more.

“Calf research shows that when a heifer has been poorly reared, her fertility, performance, disease resistance and longevity are massively affected,” explains John.

“With this,” he adds, “it does not matter how good a bull we choose to use with a heifer or cow, if she is not reared correctly, she will have many issues with fertility, performance and metabolic diseases.”

ProCROSS calf development
It’s never simply a case of nature or nurture, but always a careful balance of the two.

John Kelso,
Ruminant nutritionist, Head of distributor sales for VikingGenetics

Key elements of calf growth

Healthy growth in calves is ultimately dependent on four key elements, which are:

  1. Genetics
  2. Endocrine function
  3. Nutrition
  4. Management

“At VikingGenetics, we have the skillset as experts in genetics and we have developed professional partnerships with other experts in the fields of nutrition and management,” says John.

“With this collective expert knowledge in our armory, we can tackle any issue brought to us by farmers and help them produce more efficient and healthy livestock.”

VikingJersey calf development

Calf-rearing pillars

The four main pillars that need to be considered in calf rearing are:

  1. Colostrum management
  2. Pre-weaning
  3. Weaning
  4. Calf to heifer

The first two pillars can often be overlooked and therefore need highlighting.


Unlocking genetic potential

“Good genetics is vital but also just the starting point,” says John.

 “We can think of it as the calf’s potential. There needs to be a strong focus on developing the calf’s genetic potential through best practices in nutrition and management. It’s never simply a case of nature or nurture, but always a careful balance of the two. Getting it right bodes well for future-friendly farming.”

VikingHolstein calf development

Colostrum management

This is the most important feed in the animal’s life. However, it is not as simple as pouring four litres of early milk into the calf.

Firstly, to achieve successful maternal antibody transfer to calves, you need to ensure the colostrum is good quality. This means an immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibody concentration of at least 50 g/l. Calves should be fed at least three to four litres of this high-quality colostrum within six hours after birth.

The calf’s ability to absorb the nutrients in colostrum starts to shut down at birth and after 24 hours is greatly reduced. It is important to feed 10% of the calf’s bodyweight within one hour after birth. An additional two litres should be fed six hours later and, where possible, another two litres can be fed 12 hours after birth.

VikingBeef calf development

Pre-weaning (day 2 to 70)

During this key stage, farmers should ensure they feed the calves the same levels of milk replacer each day, and at the same times.

Pay careful attention to the housing environment. Ensure the beds are kept dry and clean, adding fresh bedding often. It is a good idea to use steel pens rather than wooden ones as wood can house bacteria.

Calf houses should also be well-ventilated. Buckets and teats should be cleaned and disinfected after use. And both concentrate and fodder should be renewed daily.

“By practicing these various points, farmers can rear healthy calves, and at the same time lower their use of antibiotics, something we at VikingGenetics encourage,” adds John.


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