Feeding calves on a higher plane of nutrition

As we find ourselves shivering in the early morning temperatures and craving a warm cup of soup, it’s a good time to think about the nutritional needs of calves. Calves expend significantly more energy to maintain body weight as the mercury dips and will need even greater nutrition for optimal growth. Should you consider increasing the quality and/or quantity of milk for your pre-weaned calves?

Biological Need

Too often, we feed “a pound a day” of milk replacer because that’s the way it’s always been, and the calves seem to be turning out OK. However, when we stop to think about the biological need of a pre-weaned calf, it quickly becomes clear that we may be limiting calves’ potential. Whole milk is 27-30% protein, and a suckling calf will nurse an average of 5 times per day. A gallon of 20% milk replacer in two feedings isn’t going to come close to what nature intended. Furthermore, when ambient temperatures reach 32 degrees F, calves need 30% more dry matter intake, just to maintain body weight.

Better Health

A well-fed calf is a healthier calf who is better equipped to fight off the inevitable challenges that come with an immature immune system. Calves will be less susceptible to typical health challenges when fed on a higher plane of nutrition, and when scours or respiratory issues do occur, they will use fewer energy reserves, recover more quickly, and avoid major setbacks on growth rate. Less sickness reduces antibiotic usage and its associated issues as well.

Long-term Payoff

Studies out of Cornell and University of Georgia found a more than $200 economic advantage during the first lactation as a result of enhanced nutrition in the pre-weaning period. The upfront cost of feeding more milk to calves can seem difficult to justify, but more vigorous calves today means more milk down the road.

Making it Work

While the benefits of feeding calves on a higher plane of nutrition are well-documented, putting a plan into action has its own set of challenges. Fortunately, there are many ways to implement an enhanced feeding plan.

  • Try 3X- The most labor-intensive option, but many producers have had great success by adding a third feeding each day.
  • Use bigger bottles- Provide a larger volume at each feeding without additional labor or extra bottles to wash.
  • Try an “accelerated” milk replacer formula- Powders formulated to more closely mimic whole milk are widely available and effective. Be sure to feed an adequate volume.
  • Or whole milk- It may be worth taking milk from the tank to match calves’ natural nutritional needs. Pasteurized waste milk also works, but can be variable in quality and poses additional challenges that must be considered. Be sure to feed an adequate volume.

Focusing on the future of your dairy by giving calves a nutritional boost has long-term benefits that will pay dividends in future lactations. Especially during the cold months, calves need the extra attention and nutrition of an enhanced feeding program to develop into profitable and durable milk cows.

By Betsy Karle- UCCE Glenn & Tehama Counties, California Dairy Newsletter, University of California.