How can grazing be used for heifer calf-rearing?

Chris Coxon from Tiller Farm Consultancy shares his advice and expertise on managing grazing for dairy heifers.

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Heifers need certain energy and protein levels depending on their age, so the key to success is using high-quality feeds that provide enough energy and protein to fulfil the calves’ needs. When calves are young, most of their diet will be milk, but as the rumen is starting to develop, it is necessary to feed high-quality energy and protein-rich concentrate feed, or high-quality grazing, depending on your grass quality.

When is grazing beneficial? 

Heifer age (months)

Feed source

Comments

Grazing

Concentrate

1

It is likely that concentrate feed will be required as it is difficult for calves to reach growth targets from grass alone. This is due to requirements for high energy and protein feed, and that the rumen is still developing.

 

4

Concentrate feed is likely to still be required as it may be difficult to provide enough energy from grazing alone. At this stage, calves require 11.5 ME and 18% protein from the diet.

6

 

If calves are reaching growth targets and grass is good quality, concentrate feed can be reduced. By 6 months old the rumen is now fully developed.

9

 

Calves should begin the onset of puberty at around 9 months. It is important to maintain good nutrition for optimum fertility on the run-up to service.

Can heifers reach growth targets from grass alone?

“It can be done,” says Chris, “but we need to think about the quality of grazing we can offer to heifers. When grazing, typically, there will be plenty of protein, but energy will be the limiting factor. It is also important to consider out-of-control variables that will influence grazing quality or quantity. For example, a rainy day will reduce grass quality and intakes, which means that those heifers aren’t hitting their feed requirements or their growth rates. This is also the case if the grazing allocation isn’t quite enough for the group.”

Top tips for grazing

  • Will get the best utilisation when allocating 2.5–3% per body weight
  • Aim for covers of 2,400–2,500 kg DM/ha but no more than this
  • Need to ensure the grass is palatable
  • If the group can’t graze the area in 2–3 days, this will limit re-growth and your overall grass production
  • Need to reset residuals after grazing – leader-follower grazing systems work, but can be a challenge to get right
  • Infrastructure is so important and makes the difference
  • Get calves out early to sheltered paddocks
  • Biggest challenge is DM from grazing alone – DM can be the limiting factor

Further resources

Grazing strategies for dairy youngstock

Dairy calf management

Image © Sue Dalton.

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