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Effectively design your milk replacer feeding program

Kathleen Shore Published on 20 July 2011

Milk replacer is formulated to balance major nutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) with an optimal fortification of vitamins and minerals. When designing any nutrition program, the calf’s health, size and age must be considered.

Historically, citations in scientific literature have documented trials where calves have been fed diets low in energy, depriving them of much-needed nutrition. Recent work has rightfully demonstrated that increased nutrition in the calf for optimized growth leads to many positive outcomes, including better milk output in the first lactation.

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When developing a feeding schedule for calves, the individual calf needs to be assessed to avoid overfeeding or underfeeding. Overfeeding at any meal can lead to milk spilling back into the rumen; this can lead to poor appetite and bloating.

Newborn calves generally have the capacity to hold 5 percent of their bodyweight within the stomach. This amounts to .06 gallons of milk (2.25 L) for a 100-pound calf. This equates to a half to three-quarters (281-338 g) of milk replacer per meal. Now consider a Jersey calf, or any other small calf, and the capacity is now just less than half a gallon (1.75 L) or just less than half a pound (219 to 263 g) of milk replacer per meal.

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Data gathered from calves fed and evaluated at the our Young Animal Development Center showed that within the first week of feeding (calves 2 to 7 days old), the average milk consumption was 1.3 gallons (5.0 L) and 1.65 pounds (750 g) of powder per day ( Table 1 ). Feeding multiple small meals during this time period (minimum of three meals per day) ensured their needs were met for maintenance and optimal growth.

Furthermore, this feeding strategy ensured the young calf’s stomach was not overwhelmed. Programs within automatic feeders are a tremendous tool for introducing a gradual feeding program for maximum digestion. Our data showed no significant difference in the amount of milk calves consumed via automatic feeding machines compared to pail feeding.

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As calves become accustomed to their diet and grow, the stomach will allow greater amounts of feed to be delivered. By 3 weeks old, average consumption was up to 2.2 gallons (8.2 L) and 2.7 pounds (1.23 kg) of milk replacer powder per day. Pail-fed calves were fed twice a day after the first week. Higher volume and solid intakes do create softer manure.

Unless there are other signs of illness, such as dull coat, sunken eyes or lack of energy, this does not mean the calf needs to be backed off her milk replacer. A good rule of thumb is a calf should double their birth weight by weaning. The right feeding program will ensure this is easily achieved, moving them toward a lifetime of strong productivity. PD

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Kathleen Shore
Nutritionist
Grober Nutrition Inc.

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