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Early calf management: Raising the bar

Dave Lahr Published on 27 April 2010
cows at feed bunk

Whether you raise calves for your own dairy or for others, raising calves well is crucial to the success of your operation. The aspects of nutrition, health and economics are not only vital, but are interrelated. One way to maximize all three of these aspects is to raise the bar and aim for better performance.


Colostrum is critically important in the first hours of a calf’s life. Many experts recommend feeding calves good quality colostrum at the rate of at least 12 percent of their bodyweight within one hour of birth.



Quality colostrum is low in bacteria count and contains a minimum of 50 grams per liter of IgG. For calves with a birth weight over 90 pounds, feed 4 quarts of colostrum, and for calves less than 90 pounds, feed 3 to 3.5 quarts. Use an esophageal feeding tube as necessary to assure calves receive the full amount. Feed an additional 1.5 to 2 quarts at 12 hours, if possible.

Liquid feeding

Feed pasteurized whole milk or a high-quality milk replacer. Control feeding temperature (95 to 105°F at feeding), percent solids (12.5 to 13.5 percent) and caloric intake relative to the environmental temperature. Research shows that calves have the most growth efficiency while on a milk diet up to 5 weeks of age. Near the end of this period, calves should be transitioning to dry feed. A calf should double its birth weight by 56 days of age.

Too often, calf performance is measured in mortality alone. “If my death loss is below (whatever your benchmark is), then I’m doing a good job.” While mortality is an important indicator, we can’t be satisfied with just keeping ’em alive.

Start by tracking the pre-weaning rate of gain of all calves. Pre-weaned calves should be fed and managed to gain 1 to 1.25 pound per day in conventional programs, and 1.5 to 1.75 pound per day in accelerated programs. Young animals have the greatest potential for efficient growth, and the plane of nutrition required for these growth rates will help support the nutrient needs of a strong immune system.

The NRC (2001) equations show that a 100-pound calf needs to consume about 2.6 quarts of whole milk or 3.1 quarts of milk replacer, daily, to maintain bodyweight in a thermoneutral environment (neither heat- nor cold-stressed). Milk solids and calf starter in excess of this amount are available for calf growth. As growth rate increases, protein needs climb more quickly than energy needs. A calf gaining 1.4 pounds daily will require more than twice the energy and four times the protein as a calf at maintenance.


Is accelerated growth practical?

Higher growth rates require greater intake, and one method is to feed greater amounts of milk or milk replacer. As a calf increases its growth rate, its protein requirement rises faster than its energy requirement. Therefore, doubling the intake of a conventional (20 to 22 percent protein) milk replacer will provide too much energy in relation to protein. The result is a fat calf plus possible digestive challenges. Match the milk replacer to planned feeding rates and growth goals.

Several milk replacer products on the market provide higher levels (26 to 28 percent) of protein and lower fat, which are designed to be fed at rates as high as two to three gallons daily, for greater growth rates. Many research trials have demonstrated much faster growth rates (as measured in height as well as gain), with excellent heath, during the liquid feeding period. While conventionally fed calves often tend to close the gap post-weaning, some trials have gone on to show greater milk production in cows that were raised in accelerated growth programs.

Since the price of milk replacer is not always well-correlated to the price of saleable milk (due to exports and other market factors), some producers have been reluctant to use accelerated growth programs during challenging economic times. Whether you use an accelerated or conventional growth program, achieving good calf starter intake early – and weaning early – is vital to good economics. So look to maximize the nutrition from dry feed as soon as possible, reducing reliance on more costly milk sources. This makes accelerated growth models not only practical, but economically feasible.


Dry starter feeds are a much more economical source of nutrients than milk solids. So set a goal of getting calves to eat quality starter as soon as possible. Freshness, texture and digestibility are essential to encourage early intake. Feed fresh starter in quantities the calf can consume daily. Remove unconsumed feed and fines.

Without additional water, starter intake will usually plateau at less-than-optimal levels. And water, along with fermentable carbohydrates from the starter, will stimulate rumen bacteria growth and rumen development. Even in cold weather, offer fresh water at least twice daily, soon after milk feeding. Good hydration is also essential for healthy immune function.

Feeding unprocessed hay or other high-fiber ingredients before calves are consuming adequate amounts of calf starter (about 6 pounds daily for Holsteins), slows rumen development.


How early can you wean?

Early weaning is recommended because it significantly reduces feed and labor costs. Calves can be weaned when they are consuming two pounds or more of starter daily. This usually occurs between 4 and 6 weeks of age. And while some calf raisers have found they can achieve these intakes at 3 weeks, they tend to have better success weaning at not less than 4 weeks of age. Calves consuming less than percent of their bodyweight as starter feed, or not gaining sufficient weight, should not be weaned until feed consumption and performance improve. Weaning calves older than 8 weeks of age greatly increases feed costs, with no performance benefits.

Careful early management pays off

A calf is born with great genetic potential for a lifetime of milk production. While many factors limit her productivity and longevity in the herd, her early rearing can be a boon or bane to her productivity and economic return. A well-managed early calf program will set the stage for maximum lifetime productivity. So don’t settle for average. Raise the bar in nutrition, health and profits. PD

Dave Lahr is a nutritionist at the Form-A-Feed and TechMix companies, headquartered in Stewart, Minnesota. For more information, e-mail Lahr at or call at (800) 422-3649.

PHOTO: Look to maximize the nutrition from dry feed as soon as possible, reducing reliance on more costly milk sources. This makes accelerated growth models not only practical, but economically feasible. Photo by Ryan Curtis.