Meet the team: Young cattle specialist Johan Verdaasdonk, I am a walking encyclopaedia and sparring partner

Ask Nutrifeed young cattle ­specialist Johan Verdaasdonk what he loves most about his job, and he won’t take long to come up with the answer. “Helping livestock farmers improve the rearing of young cattle.”

Johan has been a young cattle ­specialist for seven years. Before that, he was a milk quality consultant at FrieslandCampina. “I already had ties with the dairy industry,” he commented, explaining the transfer. “In my judgement, there was room for improvement in young cattle rearing on many farms. In some places it was clearly of secondary importance,” he described. “That situation has changed fundamentally. Livestock farmers now fully realise that successful rearing of young cattle can be profitable.”

Should the colostrum be milked or not?

His work is very varied. From visiting his regular customers and calibrating automatic drinking machines – ‘a task I describe as service’ – right through to helping with ­problems. On some farms, it leads to discussions. For example a father and son who clearly had different ideas on the quantity of first colostrum. “The father had been taught that taking one or two litres from a cow was enough; the son was of the opinion that the entire colostrum should be fully milked.” With this example, Johan explained just how cattle management and nutrition are constantly raising new insights. It is information he is happy to share. And the answer? “You should milk as much colostrum as possible from the cow, and feed as much as possible to the calf.”

Listening and paying compliments

As he moves around, he sees considerable differences between the way in which young cattle are raised at different farms. “And there are huge differences in the level of satisfaction among livestock farmers.” Whereas some livestock farmers sound the alarm bell when faced with just a single sick calf, others don’t call until the situation is on the point of getting completely out of control. “For me, the most important thing is to listen carefully to the livestock farmer. What are their observations of the calves? What do they want to improve?” Despite paying regular visits to ­problem farms, he is never backward in paying compliments to the men and women responsible for caring for the calves and young cattle. “There are always things that do go well, and you need to make sure you point those out to them, too.”
He has seen how key figures like the KalfOK score have boosted awareness on farms. “They show overall performance of the farm. And they give the livestock farmer an opportunity to compare their performance with that of their colleagues.” As a young cattle ­specialist, Johan considers himself a sparring partner. “Someone who looks on critically, but who also acts as a partner to the livestock farmer when it comes to finding solutions. The best thing about it is that many of the solutions are not even expensive. Very often, the devil is in the detail.”


In his district, the Southwestern Netherlands, that runs from the coast to the line Den Bosch/Eindhoven, he cooperates closely with the feed ­specialists. “We act as each other’s eyes and ears. And that lowers the threshold when it comes to helping livestock farmers.” When a livestock farmer calls, the ­problems are often already quite considerable, explained Johan. “The consultant often observes the ­problem at an earlier stage, so it is important to be reliable, and respond quickly.”  Another positive aspect of close collaboration is the regular get togethers. “It is always meaningful to establish a troika between veterinarian, consultant and livestock farmer. Together, you come up with better solutions and quicker results. And that is good for everyone, especially the calves.”

Powder costs: can they be reduced?

Johan Verdaasdonk is often asked by dairy farmers whether the costs of milk powder can be reduced. “Bookkeepers often ask the same question. They base their questions on average powder consumption, but there are farms where the bull calves and sometimes all the calves are fed full-fat milk. That obviously reduces the average powder consumption per calf.” The young cattle ­specialist also pointed out that milk powder is always a question of choice: you can reduce the quantity of powder, or opt for a cheaper powder variety. “Both choices have a cost in terms of growth and development, but those costs are rarely reflected in terms of hard cash.” There is sometimes also room for adjustment when it comes to the accuracy of the automatic milk dispenser. “I have been able to save as much as 4 kg per calf. On a farm with 100 cows, the saving amounts to a ‘profit’ of 160 kg of powder. In that case, the livestock farmer arrived at a total of 55 kg of powder per calf, for the entire rearing period.” The same farmer then argued that he had 10 heifer calves too many on his farm; 40 a year instead of 30. “There was no discussion about those 550 kg of powder; 10 cattle x 55 kg too much. Raising issues of that kind is another regular aspect of my work.”