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0709PD: Dollars and sense in calf nutrition equals peak milk

Tom Earleywine Published on 24 April 2009

Today’s milk price environment has everyone looking to reduce expenditures and improve efficiency. We’re constantly challenged to offer suggestions for calf and heifer nutrition programs.

Cutting costs from young stock nutrition shouldn’t be done without careful consideration; otherwise, the result will be poor performance from your growing herd replacements. Remember, the cheapest way to feed them is not at all. That, of course, won’t lead to peak milk production or a prosperous future for your calves or your dairy.

Don’t pinch pennies when you can make dollars.
Calf nutrition programs come in all shapes and sizes, but I recommend feeding calves to reach their full potential, starting with a 28 percent protein, 20 percent fat milk replacer that contains a soluble fiber technology. Feeding rate should be 2.5 pounds of powder a day. A high- quality calf starter (20 or 22 percent protein) with built-in fiber should be first offered at 2 or 3 days old and refreshed on a daily basis to encourage consumption. Water should be provided free-choice starting the first few days of life as well. No hay should be fed until calves are at least 12 weeks old.



A full-potential milk replacer does have a higher per-bag cost. As Table 1* shows, those “costs” might not be as expensive as you think. In fact, the return on investment is 4.5-to-1 ($404 on a $90 investment).

In the first 16 weeks of life, feeding calves to their full potential takes an added investment of about $90 per calf compared to a conventional program. However, research has shown that the return on that investment comes in a number of ways:

1. Less morbidity and mortality
Research has shown reductions in morbidity and mortality by as much as 50 percent by feeding calves to their potential. This can mean $50 to $200 in extra income.

2. Earlier breeding
Calves raised to their full potential can reach breeding size targets sooner in life, offering opportunities to calve at a younger age. Research by Cornell University found that improving age at first calving by one month will increase income at least $100 per heifer due to lower feed costs and getting milk income from the heifer sooner.

3. Higher 2-year-old production
Research at eight different universities has demonstrated that feeding calves a higher plane of nutrition prior to weaning improves first-lactation milk production by up to 3,000 pounds of milk. At a milk price of $12 per hundredweight, that’s worth an extra $360.


How can you save money on calf nutrition?

While the numbers show that helping calves reach their full potential is a worthy investment, there is still a need to save money and improve efficiency on calf programs. Here are some do’s and don’ts when looking for ways to save money:

Do focus on feed efficiency.
Instead of focusing purely on costs, a more effective way to evaluate calf nutrition programs is to look at feed efficiency and the cost per pound of gain. A study of 24 Holstein calves performed by researchers at Virginia Tech in conjunction with the USDA Agricultural Research Center reported that calves fed a 28:20 milk replacer displayed the best growth rates while also having the best nutrient retention. Additionally, in a Cornell University study, feed efficiency was improved 260 percent by feeding a higher plane of nutrition to young calves.

Do a good job of colostrum management.
Calves should be fed a gallon of colostrum from a healthy, vaccinated cow, or a USDA-approved colostrum replacer, within one hour of birth. We all know that colostrum equips the calf with adequate antibodies to fight infections and to minimize the calf’s exposure to infectious organisms. However, research has also shown that calves who achieve passive transfer are set on a more successful path throughout their life. Colostrum contains over 50 biologically active molecules that trigger cell growth and protein synthesis. Studies have found that calves who achieve passive transfer were 40 percent more feed-efficient than those who had failure of passive transfer.

Don’t downgrade milk replacer quality.
The liquid portion of a young calf’s diet represents the largest investment in her prior to weaning. Milk replacer is also most responsible for a young calf’s development and performance. Feeding a high-protein milk replacer will ensure that she grows taller and longer with proper structural development. Stay with the same high-protein milk replacer all the way to weaning. While there may be temptation to reduce quality once calves begin consuming calf starter on a routine basis, the risk to doing this outweighs the small gains in bag price.

Do set growth goals and monitor performance.
Heifer calves should be double their birth weight and have grown 4 to 5 inches taller at 60 days old. If you don’t measure and weigh them periodically, you won’t discover a problem such as small heifers until calving, and that will take years to correct.


Don’t get sloppy with calf starter management.
Calves should be offered grain within the first week of life, but they only need small amounts. Make sure calves are eating the grain that you provide them and not wasting feed. For the first week, they may only need a handful. Week 2 might only mean two handfuls. Keep the water and grain buckets separate to prevent wet feed and dirty water as calves dribble back and forth between the two.

Do spend your money on young calves.
Pre-weaning calves are the most feed-efficient animals on the dairy, and providing them with a higher plane of nutrition will result in opportunities to save money on feed costs when they’re older heifers. Calves who achieve 55 percent of their mature size by 11 or 12 months old are ready for breeding. These heifers are also good candidates for moderate limit feeding to 95 percent of their ad libitum intake, but be careful to have plenty of bunk space.

Don’t overlook byproducts for heifers.
Heifers that are over 6 months old, and have achieved good structural growth as calves, provide a good opportunity to utilize byproduct feed such as distillers grains. Research trials in which distillers grains were fed to heifers observed normal growth rates, normal reproduction and normal subsequent milk production. Be careful to observe limits relative to size, and don’t overdo it. Fat heifers are very expensive!

Do keep your focus on their future.
It’s difficult to “save” your way into prosperity with calves; they must be cared for like an investment. Calves are the future of every dairy herd, and feeding them right today will set them up for a lifetime of better performance. Remember, you don’t get a second chance to feed your calves right! PD

*Tables and figures omitted but are available upon request to

Tom Earleywine
Director of Technical Services
Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products