Taking calf from milk-drinker to ruminant, the French way

IN France, calf-rearing practices focus on the need for the newborn calf with its inactive rumen to make the transition from being a milk-drinking youngster to a young ruminant.

The manner in which milk and feed is presented to the calf is a key focus. A system by which calves are fed milk using the same teat, devised by Dairy Spares’ French technical manager Sam Malard, and called ‘suivez la tétine’ or ‘follow the teat’ has become popular and successful on French farms.

Mr Malard says: “Calves are designed by nature to drink milk from their mother’s teats with an outstretched neck, and muzzle lifted. This stimulates the oesophageal groove reflex and ensures milk bypasses the rumen and goes into the abomasum where it can be digested.

Tips for a ‘follow the teat’ system

  • Site the feeder so the teat is positioned 60 to 70cm (23 to 28in) above the ground, ensuring the neck is stretched slightly upwards at feeding
  • The feeder should be kept out of reach between meals, to prevent bored or hungry calves nibbling and damaging the teats
  • Follow good hygiene practices, wash equipment daily and ensure clean water is always available

Digestive upset

“In newborn calves, the rumen is not yet functioning, so digestion needs to take place in the abomasum and small intestine. If milk does enter the rumen then it ferments, creating acids, and causing digestive upset and scours.”

Mr Malard says by contrast, when calves drink water in the wild, they spread their front legs and drink at a low level from streams. “This ensures water goes to the rumen, and not the abomasum where it would upset the digestion of the milk.

“These two simple physiological facts are key to successful calf rearing, and on which the Milk Bar feeding system ‘follow the teat’ is based.”

Milk Bar feeding equipment was first introduced into the UK from New Zealand ten years ago. At the heart of the system is the patented Milk Bar teat, which is designed to mimic the features of a cow’s teat.

“The teats, when new, are short and stiff,” says Mr Malard. “They have a concave end to prevent damage to the palate. Their design ensures the calf has to suckle hard, and even then, milk is only released at a slow rate. It takes about three minutes for a calf to drink one litre of milk with a brand new teat.”

The intense suckling action required provokes a massive amount of salivation and Mr Malard says this is important for digestion and the development of good calf health.

“Saliva balances the pH in the abomasum, so enzymes can break the milk down into curd and whey, which are then absorbed in the small intestine.

“Saliva contains lipase, an enzyme necessary for digestion of fats, a vital energy source for the young animal. It also contains natural antibiotic properties, which are a young calf’s first and main defence against infection.

“Suckling activates the oesophageal groove reflex and prevents milk entering the inactive rumen where it would ferment and produce acids and lower the pH of the rumen. This can cause long-term damage which can affect the subsequent growth and production potential of the animal.”

In France, calves will be taken from their mothers, penned singly and fed colostrum for the first two days.

The teat system starts on day three when each calf, still penned singly, is fed 2.5 litres of milk, twice daily using an individual feeder fitted with a brand new teat.

To begin with, the stiffness of the new teat will mean the calf takes around six to seven minutes to consume its ration, all the time salivating abundantly.

“The effort required to suckle the milk will ensure the calf’s saliva glands have emptied, and after finishing it will go and lie down to rest.

“Cross-suckling and sucking of other animals’ navels and ears, is an instinctive activity which arises when more saliva needs to be produced. The act of suckling hard at a teat generates plenty of saliva and so the calf doesn’t need to suck on anything else.

“Salivation provokes thirst. So it’s important fresh water is available to the calf from day two onwards. The earlier the calf drinks water, the sooner rumen function can develop and the earlier dry food can be taken in.”

Water source

Mr Malard says it is important the water enters the rumen and not the abomasum so the water source must be available at a low level, and never from a bucket or teat.

In France, calves will remain individually penned for about two weeks, before being transferred to a pen with others of a similar age. Milk is then fed from a six or 10 feeder.

“This is where the benefit of calves ‘following the teat’ really comes into play,” says Mr Malard. “The original teats from the single feeders, which are now two to three weeks old and have lost their initial stiffness, are transferred to the multi-teat feeder. So there will be one teat per calf. A blanking plug can be used to fill surplus teat holes on the feeder if needed.

“Because all the teats are of a similar age and softness, whichever teat a calf suckles, it will be receiving the same rations as its pen mates. The teat flow rate is still slower than the calf’s drinking speed, so effort is still needed, stimulating saliva production and preventing cross-suckling.”

The calves stay in their group pens until weaned, and are fed as shown in Table 1. Concentrates are available from day 25, and hay is offered once calves are eating around 250g of concentrate each day.

As the calf grows, the importance of saliva for milk digestion diminishes, and it is now needed for rumination.

“By the time calves are 60 days old, thanks to their age and the wear of the teat, it takes them only 80 seconds to drink one litre of milk.”

Mr Malard adds: “The ‘follow the teat’ system allows calves to feed as they would in nature. It has been a huge success on French farms where calves have shown better liveweight gains, not only during the weaning process, but also in the months following.

“In part, this can be attributed to the energetic suckling which is required, which develops the jaw muscles and enhances the efficiency of rumination.”

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