Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

1608 PD: Winter nutrition and bedding can affect calf weight gain

Mark Hill Published on 06 November 2008

Typically, in the fall you read articles about increasing the amount of milk replacer to feed to calves. The typical recommendations come from the National Research Council (NRC) predictions for the increased calorie demands for calves under cold stress. While these recommendations are correct, they are also incorrect.

In 2007, a detailed set of research trials were published in the Professional Animal Scientist Journal. In these trials, calves were fed different amounts and types of milk replacers in different trials conducted in the winter months (temperatures shown in Table 1*). The calves were housed in naturally ventilated barns with no added heat. Bedding material was also compared. Calves were deep-bedded with dried hardwood shavings or wheat straw.



In one of those trials, calves were fed 1, 1.25 or 1.50 pounds of milk replacer powder daily for 42 days and weaned. The milk replacer powder contained 20 percent crude protein (CP) (all from milk protein) and 20 percent fat. During the first 21 days, calf bodyweight gain increased as more milk replacer was fed (Table 2*). However, that was not true thereafter. Gain was not different among milk replacer intakes from 21 to 42 days of age. From weaning at 42 days of age to 84 days when the trial ended, gain was less in calves that had been fed more milk replacer. Overall, calves fed more milk replacer had lower starter intake, lower efficiency of starter use and lower bodyweight gain.

Bedding type greatly affected bodyweight gain. Over the first 56 days, straw supported 11 percent more gain than shavings (Table 3*). Calves bedded on straw were 9 pounds heavier at 56 days than calves bedded on shavings. Over the first 56 days, 154 pounds of straw and 185 pounds of shavings were used to bed each calf. Deep bedding with straw provided more insulation to the calves during cold weather.

In a follow-up trial in that journal article, increasing the milk replacer fed for the first three weeks then reducing it back to recommended amounts for the next three weeks, allowed the calves to maintain the added weight gained during the first three weeks. In the first half of the milk feeding period, starter intake is normally low. Overall starter intake was not affected and bodyweight gain was increased when more milk replacer was fed during the first three weeks.

Keys to young calf management include keeping the calves dry, well insulated, yet well ventilated but draft-free. Increasing milk or milk replacer feeding rates should be limited to the first half of the milk feeding period, so not to reduce starter intake, digestion and bodyweight gain. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at


Mark Hill
Akey Nutrition and Research

*Tables omitted but are available upon request to