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Initiation of solid feed intake is necessary for rumen development before there is a change in diet from milk to other solid feeds.

Both concentrate/grain-based (meals) and forage-based starter feeds are available to farmers. 

Generally, meal starter feeds are energy dense, contain high quality plant proteins and are more digestible than forage-based starter feeds.

Both physical and metabolic development of the rumen is required to help the calf transition from a milk to a solid feed diet without compromising growth, health and wellbeing.

Forage feeding

Calves perform well if given free access to good quality forage. Therefore, free access to good quality forage should be available from a young age. This can be good quality hay, silage or access to pasture. Forage is important for rumen development and the establishment of microbiota required to ferment forage at weaning.

AgResearch trials have demonstrated that calves can be successfully reared without using concentrates on a good quality forage-only solid feed diet (e.g. ensiled Lucerne or grazed pasture; >10 MJ/ME and >16% crude protein) without adverse effects on lifetime performance in dairy-beef calves. This can be successfully implemented in calves fed a high milk allowance (e.g. >6/L day).

Fibre source

Solid feed should be introduced early (e.g. from 1 week of age). Meal should be used when farmers choose not to feed high levels of milk (e.g. 10% body weight systems) and can’t provide access to quality pasture or another high-quality forage source.

If calves are fed meal, it is a good practice to choose a high-quality meal (pelleted or texturised having 16-20% crude protein and a coccidiostat) and fed in combination with chopped grass, meadow hay, silage or pasture during the pre-weaning period to promote solid feed intake and rumen development. It is also good practice to provide the meal and forage ad libitum pre-weaning. Depending on the availability and quality of forage, a meal containing 16% crude protein should be used for feeding older calves after weaning.  

Other considerations

  • Bird fouling can contaminate feeders - add plastic flaps or fill troughs in the evening
  • As meal consumption increases it is important to allow space for simultaneous access to the trough. Allow 300mm of head space per calf
  • As meal intake increases, water intake also increases. Therefore, ensure there is good access to clean ad-lib water
A calf cannot eat enough meal to replace milk nutrients during the first 8 weeks of life, hence the importance of feeding a good quality milk/milk replacer in the early stages of life.