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Myth busting calf nutrition: Are you feeding enough?

Tom Earleywine for Progressive Dairyman Published on 03 March 2017

Research continues to show feeding more nutrition can help calves reach their full potential. And, while the dairy industry has moved away from the old standard of feeding calves 2 quarts of milk or milk replacer twice a day, misconceptions remain. Below are six common calf nutrition myths:

Myth #1: 3 quarts twice a day is enough

While 3 quarts twice a day is a step in the right direction, it’s still short changing calves the nutrition needed to reach their full potential for growth and development. Feeding a full potential diet of at least 8 to 9 quarts of liquid per calf per day – delivered in 3 quarts three times a day or 4 quarts twice day – can help calves achieve improved performance. Anything less could be limiting calves from reaching their potential.

Myth #2: Calves can’t absorb high amounts of nutrition

It may be necessary to start calves on a lower level of nutrition at birth; however, calves can consume the full 8 to 9 quarts of liquid per day by 7 to 10 days old. It’s important to have consistent feeding times with adequate time between feedings to help increase consumption. When feedings are too close together, calves won’t drink as much, especially during the second feeding of the day.

Because they consume more nutrients, calves may be less aggressive eaters and can take longer to drink at each feeding. On average, calves fed a full potential diet will drink a 3-quart bottle in 9 minutes. This is good since drinking too fast can cause milk to spill into the rumen or lungs and cause digestive and respiratory issues in young calves.

Myth #3: Feeding more nutrition can cause scours

Although manure may appear loose, the dry matter content of manure from calves fed a full potential diet is similar to calves fed less milk nutrition. What calf raisers often see as nutritional scours may just be an increase in liquid manure due to the higher level of milk nutrients consumed.

To evaluate whether loose manure is a sign of scours or a natural result of a full potential diet, look for other signs of sickness and dehydration in calves such as sunken eyes and lethargic behavior. If the calf is experiencing scours, it’s important to continue feeding a high level of nutrition to help calves fight off disease challenges and provide electrolytes between feedings.

Myth #4: More milk means lower starter intake

With a full potential diet, calves receive more nutrients through milk or milk replacer, which can slow initial starter intake. However, calves fed a full potential diet will eat as much, or more, starter at weaning than calves fed a lower amount of milk nutrition.

The real myth here is slow initial starter intake in young calves is a bad thing. Encouraging calves to eat too much dry feed at a young age can be harmful to rumen development and may cause challenges such as acidosis.

Myth #5: Increasing nutrition levels will increase costs

Some calf raisers may be deterred from feeding a full potential diet because of cost concerns with feeding an increased amount of milk replacer. It’s important not to overlook the big picture when it comes to an investment in calf raising.

Because full potential fed calves receive higher levels of milk nutrition, they grow at a quicker rate and producers see improved average daily gains. This, along with potentially reduced treatment costs and improved feed efficiency, can result in a lower cost per pound of gain per calf.

Additionally, heifers fed a full potential diet pre-weaning have been shown to calve up to two months earlier than those fed a lower amount of milk nutrition and produce as much as 960 more pounds of milk in their first lactation, giving you a higher return on your investment.

Myth #6: Adding water increases nutrition levels

A common misconception when increasing feeding levels is to add more water. For example, when increasing from 2 quarts to 3 quarts, you may think you only need to add an additional quart of water. However, if you increase volume without increasing solids, you dilute the amount of nutrition delivered. To provide the proper amount of nutrition for calf development, feed at least 2.5 pounds of milk solids per calf per day for a full potential diet. This is typically delivered at 12.5 to 15 percent solids. The best way to ensure accurate solids percentage is by weighing milk replacer powder before mixing with water.

Consult with your calf and heifer specialist for strategies to step up your calf feeding program.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Tom Earleywine
  • Tom Earleywine

  • Director of Nutritional Services
  • Land O’Lakes
  • Email Tom Earleywine

PHOTO: Illustration by Kristen Phillips.

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