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Calves need consistency

J. Skip Olson for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 March 2016
Calves need a consistent time they are fed

Your calves deserve the best of both worlds – milk feeding balanced to deliver the right amount of milk nutrients and fresh calf starter that will contribute to their future as a ruminant.

If you want to grow healthy, productive heifers, consistency matters. A consistent level of milk solids in the right protein-to-fat ratio, a consistent supply of fresh starter grain that is easily accessible, fresh water and milk served at the same temperature and time each day all help meet the goal of consistency for your calves.



Mounting evidence

Many studies have examined the effects of feeding a higher plane of nutrition during the first 30-60 days of life as a way to improve future milk production. A growing field of evidence is showing a positive milk production response. This can be accomplished by feeding a high level of milk solids – 1.6 to 2.4 pounds per day which is about 6-9 quarts of whole milk per day.

While the mode of action is not completely understood, it may occur as a result of nutritional or metabolic programming, referred to as epigenetic effects, during the first two months of life.

Recent research also shows evidence that mammary parenchymal development is significantly impacted by a higher level of pre-weaning nutrition. This may indicate that better pre-weaning nutrition leads to more mammary gland development and more milk.

Higher levels of liquid feed consumption supports greater gains, improved feed efficiency, reduced disease incidence and may lead to improved animal welfare. Feeding a higher plane of nutrition that delivers consistent nutrients every day is critical for optimal growth, development and future productivity.

The transition

Why do we find scientific evidence and on-farm reports of calves thriving on this higher plane of milk feeding, only to crash at weaning? Again, the answer may be consistency. The total protein and fat content in whole milk can vary from about 10 percent milk solids to 15 percent milk solids depending on the whole milk supply each day.


Without testing and balancing the whole milk supply each day, delivering a consistent level of nutrients to calves may become more difficult. Total milk solids fed should not exceed 15 percent unless there is excellent management of the fresh water supply where the calf can self-regulate the concentration of the high solids consumed.

Protein and fat should also be fed in the right ratio for calves to thrive. Whole milk typically contains a protein-to-fat ratio of .84 or a dry matter equivalent of about 26:31. When feeding more whole milk, the high fat level suppresses the calf’s appetite and she becomes satiated, which may limit starter intake.

Instead, consider feeding whole milk or milk replacer with a protein-to-fat combination of about 24:18, 25:20 or equivalent and always mix according to label directions.

When feeding whole milk, consider using a whole milk balancer or enhancer to achieve the goal of more protein than fat, aiming for a ratio above 1.0. Balancers are used to improve the protein-to-fat ratio and provide added vitamins and trace minerals that may be deficient in whole milk.

When the amount of milk solids fed varies, it impacts calves’ starter grain intake. If you feed 2 pounds of milk solids one day and only 1 pound of milk solids the next day, the calf feels hungry and eats more starter grain on the low milk solids day, and the result is slug feeding.

On days where milk solids are high, there may be little or no starter intake, resulting in a gap of nutrients needed to grow the rumen microbes and rumen structure.


Think of the rumen as a fermentation vat. Brew masters and winemakers use fermentation vats to produce beer and wine. They consistently feed their vats the ingredients needed in the exact combination to develop their product with the consistent flavors and quality they want.

The same theory can apply to the development of the calf rumen.

In addition to feeding a consistent and balanced milk ration, these time-honored methods encourage starter grain intake:

  • Provide access to starter grain beginning at 3-5 days of age.

  • Offer starter in a shallow bucket. Their eyes should be above the rim.

  • Deliver fresh, palatable starter that is free from fine particles.

  • Keep starter grain fresh and dry.

  • Encourage consumption with hand feeding, or use nipple devices that provide easy access to starter through simulated sucking.

  • Always provide fresh, clean, palatable water.

Strive for consistency

Consider that imprecise methods of throwing a handful of milk replacer into whole milk and calling it good, or dumping what looks like the right amount of powder into water to be mixed for milk replacer may not achieve consistent nutrient levels for calves.

Producers take great strides to make sure cows’ diets are carefully formulated and made with quality ingredients that are properly mixed. The same careful calculations should be made when feeding calves. Consistency makes the journey from simple stomach to ruminant successful.  PD

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

PHOTO: Calves need consistency. Staff photo.

J. Skip Olson
  • J. Skip Olson

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