Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Consistency pays when feeding baby calves

Xavier Suarez-Mena and Mark Hill Published on 22 May 2015

Most people like consistency in life and work. Consistency should be a major goal in how we feed our baby calves. Here we will discuss how feeding consistently can improve your calf-rearing program.

In a study we published in the Professional Animal Science Journal, calves were fed a low-fat milk replacer (17 percent fat) more typical of the industry and a high-fat milk replacer (30 percent fat) more typical of cow’s milk at an average rate of 1.5 pounds of solids daily.



Half of the calves fed each milk replacer received a consistent amount of 1.5 pounds of solids daily, and the other half received an inconsistent amount over the week that averaged 1.5 pounds of solids (Table 1).

calf feeding

Calves fed the consistent amount of milk replacer gained approximately 20 percent more bodyweight prior to weaning compared to calves fed the same average amount of milk replacer fed inconsistently. Calves fed consistently also maintained their extra bodyweight gain four weeks after weaning, consumed more starter and had better feed efficiency.

Where does inconsistency creep into our calf-feeding programs? Here is a short but real list of possibilities.

Inaccurate dispensing of milkor milk replacer to each calf

If calves are fed in 2- or 3-quart bottles, the variability is less than when dispensing milk into a pail. Use of pails is a common practice but a much greater source of variation. Variability when feeding into a pail up to a graduated line on the pail is greater than utilizing a graduated nozzle.


Feeding of milk or milk replacer via computer auto-feeders

Calves can drink up to a limit, and if they miss a feeding window their intake can be low, creating day-to-day variation. Also, calves can be displaced from the feeder while drinking and not get all of their allotted milk. Small portion size and slow milk flow will influence calf behavior and increase variability in milk intake.

Free-choice milk or milk replacer via simple self-feeders

It is free-choice, so do you really expect a baby calf to drink the same amount of milk each day? They don’t. We reported this in multiple studies published in the Journal of Dairy Science. Interestingly, however, calves offered milk replacer in self-feeders consumed more than 95 percent of their daily milk replacer in two meals around 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. With acidified milk replacer, variation in intake increased tremendously when pH was reduced from 5.2 to 4.2.

Improper mixing of milk replacer powder with water

It is quite simple to make this mistake. Recently, Sonia Gelsinger, a graduate student, and Dr. Jud Heinrichs, a professor, both at Pennsylvania State University, used students in a dairy management class to test this. Ten ounces of milk replacer powder were to be mixed into 2 quarts of total volume with water that was to be between 110ºF and 115ºF to yield a 13 percent solution, typical instructions on many milk replacer tags in our industry.

The average of the total of 41 mixes made by the students was 9.6 percent solids and 95.6ºF. The temperature ranged from 80ºF to 115ºF, and the solids ranged from 6 to 14.5 percent. The inherent problems are measuring the right amount of powder and water. Filling cups of powder to a line below the brim is very problematic. Filling cups of powder to the brim is less of a problem. Weighing powder for the group of calves is the most accurate option.

Variable solids contentof pasteurized milk

Many field studies report that milk fed to calves varies in percentage of solids just as much as the milk replacer mixed by the students in the dairy production class. Milk also has variability in percentage of protein, fat and lactose, along with the risk of having more microbial contamination.

We published a study in the Professional Animal Science Journal where calves were fed an equal amount of solids daily from salable milk, milk replacer or a 50-50 blend of solids from each. Despite milk providing more protein and calories, calves fed the milk replacer gained more bodyweight than calves fed milk or the 50-50 blend.


Additionally, calves fed the 50-50 blend and milk had near-equal performance. In this study, the milk (despite it being salable milk) had much greater concentrations of bacteria than the milk replacer; possibly the bacteria or particular bacteria in the milk was the reason for the poorer performance of calves that consumed it.

If the bacteria were the problem with the milk, then the saying “dilution is the solution for pollution” did not hold true in this situation. Fortifying waste milk with a milk replacer or powder intended to equalize the solid contents can actually increase variability if the waste milk solid contents and added milk replacer are not accurately measured.

More variability with very high feeding rates

Calves fed large amounts of milk or milk replacer (i.e., more than 1.5 pounds of solids per day) will have days where they do not consume everything they are fed. This occurs during the periods to step calves up on milk and also once they reach the peak amount. This might explain why calves fed these programs in published research do not grow as fast as nutrient intake would predict in models of calf growth.

Consistency pays. Look for ways to improve the consistency in your calf feeding program. More consistency can greatly increase calf performance with little or no impact to feed costs. PD

Xavier Suarez-Mena, Ph.D., is a calf and heifer nutritionist with technical service responsibilities in Wisconsin and Minnesota and research responsibilities at the Nurture Research Center at Provimi North America. Mark Hill, Ph.D., manages the research at the Nurture Research Center and has calf and heifer technical service responsibilities with Provimi North America.