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Beyond the scale: Growing the modern, healthy heifer

Tom Earleywine and Troy Wistuba for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 August 2018

Weight gain. Two words that strike fear in humans – unless they’re talking about calves. It’s well documented a healthy calf should, at a minimum, double their birthweight before weaning, but the scale doesn’t tell the whole story and, sometimes, it can be misleading.

Feeding the right nutrients at the right age can help take advantage of a calf’s most efficient life stages to maximize growth. The right types of weight gain and frame growth – skeletal and lean tissue growth, not just fat growth – are critical to set a calf up for success later in life.



Here are three key stages to help achieve the right type of growth:

Birth to weaning

Calves have the best feed efficiency rate during the pre-weaned stage, at a rate of 0.5 to 0.8 pound of gain per pound of feed. This is a critical timeframe to achieve not just weight gain but skeletal and lean tissue growth as well. Whether you are raising steers or heifers, this early frame growth can help set animals up to reach maximum performance later on.

composition of gainTo achieve proper weight and frame growth, feed at least 2.5 pounds of milk solids in at least 8 to 10 quarts of milk or milk replacer per calf per day. It’s also important to feed the proper balance of protein and fat. Calves need 25 to 28 percent protein at all times, but fat level should vary based on temperature.

For example, a lower fat content in summer (10 percent) helps encourage starter intake, while a higher fat content in winter (20 percent) is needed to meet calves’ energy requirements in cold temperatures. Without the proper balance of protein and fat, calves can be set up for fat growth and not frame growth, which can create inefficiencies throughout its life.

Feeding a high-quality 22 percent protein starter, in addition to the milk diet, is recommended to support calves’ dietary needs for frame growth during this period. However, the majority of a calf’s nutritional needs should be met through milk or milk replacer.


Since the rumen isn’t fully developed yet, the nutrients from grain can’t be correctly utilized for frame growth and can result in gut fill. Gut fill can be misleading because it translates to as much as 20 pounds on the scale but doesn’t indicate true skeletal and lean tissue growth.

Post-weaning to 6 months

At the post-weaning age of about 8 weeks, feed efficiency drops significantly. Calves typically gain 0.15 to 0.3 pound per pound of feed, less than half the efficiency of pre-weaned calves. Take this reduction in feed efficiency into account when determining what to feed your calves.

From post-weaning to 12 weeks, feed a high-quality 22 percent protein starter – no hay or TMR. Before 12 weeks old, the rumen isn’t developed enough to digest and absorb nutrients from forages. As a result, you get gut fill instead of frame growth.

Once calves are eating 10 pounds of starter per day (typically at 12 weeks old), you can transition them to an 18 percent protein grower feed and introduce hay into the diet. Continue feeding grower through 6 months old. Grower feeds support rumen development and help calves transition to a high-fiber diet.

Feeding efficiency

By utilizing this feeding program from birth to 6 months old, you can take advantage of a calf’s most feed-efficient time of its young life.


6 months to breeding

At 6 months old, feed efficiency drastically drops again to less than 0.1 pound of gain per pound of feed. With feed efficiency being much lower at this age, many dairy farmers tend to overfeed their animals. However, by taking advantage of the natural feed efficiency earlier in a calf’s life, they should enter this stage with a more balanced composition of weight gain.

Optimizing nutrients fed with a calf’s natural feed efficiency can allow you to back off feed as calves get older and less feed-efficient. It’s impossible for calves to “catch up” and make up for lost frame and lean tissue growth that should have been achieved pre-weaning.

Introduce a balanced TMR and hay diet at 6 months old to maintain a steady weight gain until they are ready to breed.

Long-term results

Maximizing early skeletal and lean tissue growth can have impacts far beyond the calf and heifer stage. Research showed calves fed a high level of nutrition in the first six months of life had an earlier age at first calving and additional lifetime milk production – as much as 6,588 pounds more milk through three lactations.

This type of feeding program also can positively impact your bottom line – both short- and long-term. By feeding more pre-weaning nutrition, you can reduce the amount fed in the post-weaning phase and see a lower cost per pound of gain.

While the exact nutrition program will vary based on the farm and time of year, working closely with your nutritionist or calf and heifer specialist can help you optimize your calf nutrition program and, in turn, calf growth.  end mark

Troy Wistuba, Ph.D., is director of dairy technical innovation with Land O’Lakes. Email Troy Wistuba.

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