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Does greater milk replacer feeding result in increased frame growth?

Kayla Aragona, Wenping Hu and Tana Dennis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 06 May 2019

Recently, interest has increased in feeding high levels of milk replacer to calves as research has indicted that greater levels of milk replacer increase pre-weaning average daily gain and future milk production.

A meta-analysis done by Penn State University found that intake of starter was four times more influential on future milk production than intake of milk or milk replacer. Furthermore, these researchers determined that average daily gain only explained 3 percent of the variation, whereas farm events were responsible for 97 percent of future milk production. In addition, increased consumption of milk replacer often decreases consumption of starter pre-weaning.

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Starter consumption is important to promote the development of the rumen and to help prepare the calf for the weaning transition. Other research has found greater consumption of milk replacer in the pre-weaning period reduces average daily gain and structural growth post-weaning. Altering milk replacer feeding programs to reduce the amount of milk replacer fed and increase utilization of nutrients can help reduce costs of calf raising.

Team members at Provimi’s Nurture Research Center have conducted and published numerous trials in the Journal of Dairy Science comparing the effects of moderate versus high levels of milk replacer on calf growth and performance through the post-weaning period (zero to 16 weeks). In 10 trials conducted since 2016, average milk replacer feeding rate for moderately fed calves was 1.5 pounds per day over six weeks, for an average total intake of 65 pounds, whereas the feeding rate for high-fed calves averaged 2.4 pounds per day over approximately seven weeks, for an average total intake of 107 pounds. Total starter intake during the first five weeks of life (pre-weaning) was two times greater for calves fed moderate levels, compared to calves fed high levels of milk replacer (Figure 1).

Intake of starter over 16 weeks in calves fed moderate and high milk replacer programs

This year, Provimi published a paper in the Journal of Dairy Science showing how lower starter intakes pre-weaning, as observed in calves fed high levels of milk replacer, negatively impacted digestive development of the calf, which led to decreased digestibility of starter.

In these 10 trials, calves fed the high level of milk replacer had approximately 14 pounds greater bodyweight gain up to 5 weeks of age (pre-weaning) than calves fed moderate levels of milk replacer (Figure 2).

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Bodyweight gain over 16 weeks in calves fed moderate and high milk replacer programs

However, by 16 weeks, bodyweight gain for calves fed the high level of milk replacer was only approximately 6 pounds greater than calves fed moderate levels of milk replacer. When comparing hip width gain, calves fed the moderate level of milk replacer gained 3.4 inches, while calves fed the high level of milk replacer gained 3.3 inches (Figure 3), indicating that the increase in bodyweight gain in high-fed calves was not frame growth, but body condition or gut fill.

Hip width change ove 16 weeks in calves fed moderate and hidh milk replacer programs

Over 16 weeks, calves fed the moderate level of milk replacer were slightly more efficient despite consuming 42 pounds less of a very digestible milk replacer than calves fed the high level of milk replacer. The lower efficiency converting feed to gain in calves fed high levels of milk replacer can be attributed to lower starter intake pre-weaning, which reduces development of the rumen, leading to a decreased ability to digest nutrients from dry feeds.

Moderate milk replacer programs result in greater overall frame growth and feed efficiency to 16 weeks of age, based on the assessment of controlled research. Calves raised on high milk replacer programs have greater pre-weaning average daily gain; however, this advantage is lost in the post-weaning period due to low starter intake that negatively impacts rumen development and digestion of nutrients.

With greater growth of calves fed moderate versus high amounts of milk replacer, and a savings of approximately $50 per calf in milk replacer costs, calves should be raised on moderate milk replacer programs, especially considering today’s dairy economy.  end mark

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Kayla Aragona, Ph.D., is a calf and heifer specialist for Provimi. Email Kayla Aragona

Wenping Hu, Ph.D., is a ruminant nutritionist for Provimi. Email Wenping Hu

Tana Dennis, Ph.D., is a calf and heifer technical support specialist for Provimi. Email Tana Dennis.

Take-home points:

1. At 16 weeks of age, skeletal growth and feed efficiency were greater for calves fed a moderate milk replacer program versus a high milk replacer program.

2. Calves raised on high milk replacer programs initially gain more weight pre-weaning, but this advantage is lost post-weaning due to low starter intake.

3. Considering today’s dairy economy, calves should be raised on moderate milk replacer programs, as it reduces costs and results in better frame growth and feed efficiency to 16 weeks of age.

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