Lifetime productivity starts when the calf is born. Calves, like human babies, need to have a good childhood to become successful adults. Calves are a very important part of any dairy operation and need care and attention. There are plenty of useful tips and tricks to be found along the way. In this post, we look at teaching the calf to drink for itself.
The goal of the first 1-2 weeks of calf rearing is to have a healthy and strong calf that is drinking its milk on its own and this liquid feeding phase is a very important period for the calves’ health and growth. On the majority of farms an accelerated growth program with a high pre-weaning nutrient intake for high daily weight gains is recommended for the first few weeks in life – and this increases the importance of encouraging the calf to drink on its own at the earliest opportunity.
The abomasum of a calf (one of the animal’s four stomachs, and the one where milk is digested) is the only stomach that is functionally developed at birth. The rumen is not yet functioning. When the calf sucks for milk, the milk will bypass the rumen and pass directly into the abomasum via the oesophageal groove (the channel between the oesophagus and the abomasum).
Ideally, the calf should be given milk from a bottle or a teat bucket (or other teat feeder) which will slow down the ingestion rate of milk and add more saliva than occurs when drinking from a bucket. Using the teat will encourage the animal to use a natural sucking behaviour compared with drinking directly from a bucket without a teat, which could lead to digestive problems. Ensure that the height of the teat is at normal nose height to the calf, and that the calf keeps her neck and head up while drinking.
Training calves to drink from a teat may require a measure of patience and skill. The calf should be held and guided gently to the teat. This can be achieved by letting the calf suck the handler’s fingers and gradually guiding the calf’s mouth onto the teat. The speed of learning will differ – some calves learn rapidly to come to the milk bottle or teat feeder, while others require more training. Gentle handling of hungry calves helps speed up independent feeding.
Allowing the calf to drink to appetite from a teat reduces cross-sucking between calves. Don’t forget that good hygiene of the teats is also important for your calves’ health.
Milk from the cow’s first milkings after calving is called transition milk and contains more antibodies and nutrients than in later lactation. A combination of a generous provision of colostrum during the first day of life and pasteurized transition milk during the next three to five days is strongly recommended.
You’ll find plenty more advice, tips and tricks for successful calf rearing in the
Calf Management Booklet, available free online