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Feeding more milk without sacrificing starter grain intake

Noah Litherland for Progressive Dairyman Published on 23 November 2016

The goal of any nursery calf program should be to strike a balance between maximizing health and growth during the first half of the nursery phase and building a fully functional rumen during the second half.

Failure to achieve adequate starter grain intake all too often results in stalled growth rates at transition and increased risk of negative health events.



Many producers seek strategies to feed a maximal amount of whole milk without blunting starter grain intake. I like to call this approach “responsible nutrition” or the “low-drama calf-feeding program.”

The minimum amount of starter grain intake by the end of a 56-day nursery phase is hard to define but, in practice, appears to be around 75 to 100 pounds total intake per calf or about 1.3 to 1.8 pounds per day. A good goal is to exceed 1.8 pounds per day in average 56-day starter intake.

Composition of milk impacts growth and starter intake

Similar to milk production in cows, growth in calves increases nutrient demand, which drives increased dry matter intake. The amount of energy and protein supplied to the calf by whole milk is determined by the composition of the milk, solids concentration and the amount fed. Milk solids composition varies by breed and stage of lactation.

To better visualize the impact of milk solids composition on nutrient intake, let’s compare whole milk composition during weeks one and four (Table 1).

Compostition of wole milk by stage of lactation and impact on milk solids intake


Altering both the solids amount and composition results in changes in nutrient intake. Knowing your milk composition by sending a representative sample to a testing lab monthly is helpful to dial in the milk feeding program so starter grain intake is not compromised.

How much milk to feed?

Factors impacting nutrient intake by calves is multi-faceted and not completely understood. Feeding excessive amounts of fat has been demonstrated to decrease ruminants’ dry matter intake. A brief summary of 11 treatment averages from studies where milkfat intake varied demonstrates average 56-day starter grain intake decreases below 1.5 pounds per day when milkfat intake exceeds 280 grams per day (about 2.5 sticks of butter).

This represents the amount of fat consumed by calves fed 8 quarts of milk per day. Fat intake is certainly not the only factor at play, but these data give us some insight into how milk feeding strategy impacts starter grain intake.

While the composition of milk is important, the amount of milk fed has a larger impact on nursery calf nutrient intake (Table 2).

Effects of milk solids content and milk feeding voulume on milk solids intakeAdditionally, calculating protein and energy supplied by the diet relative to nutrient requirements for growth offer insight into formulating milk diets that allow room for starter grain. In my opinion, a targeted feeding rate of 1.6 to 2 pounds of milk solids per day results in the most consistent growth and starter grain intake across a variety of environments and management styles.

Calf birth bodyweight, days on milk and environment are all important factors which define nutrient requirements needed to achieve the correct balance between milk and starter nutrition.


Why is starter grain important for dairy calves?

Simply put, we grow calves from the inside out. Gastrointestinal tract development and maturation must be achieved to fulfill the calf’s destiny of becoming a functional ruminant. This does not happen overnight and is a process of building tissues, microbial ecology and behavior.

average starter grain intake through 56 days of age by milkfat intake

Starter grain serves many functions and is the principal factor regulating rumen maturation. Second only to calf health, achieving adequate starter grain intake during the nursery phase is the most important factor impacting success in the grower phase.

Failure to achieve adequate starter grain intake results in decreased energy and protein balance, increased risk for health challenges and decreased rates of growth.

Starter grain intake results in at least 10 positive impacts of calf growth and health:

  1. Develop rumen tissue important for absorption of microbial end products of fermentation: volatile fatty acids.

  2. Increase energy and microbial protein from fermentation of starter grain in the rumen. Bacterial cells offer a highly digestible protein and nearly optimal amino acid profile for growth.

  3. Slow the rate of passage through the gastrointestinal tract and increase nutrient absorption.

  4. Increase both microbial mass and diversity (competitive environment for pathogens).

  5. Bacterial fermentation results in the production of B vitamins important in energy metabolism.

  6. Ensure adequate amount of coccidiostat is consumed.

  7. Stimulate cud chewing and rumination while resting.

  8. Each pound of starter intake is accompanied by 4 to 5 pounds of water intake. Water is the primary component of skeletal muscle.

  9. Increased colonic health. The colon plays an important role in water absorption and therefore fecal consistency.

  10. Provide vitamins and trace minerals not provided in adequate amounts in whole milk.


Nursery calf nutrition programs should provide a balance of nutrients from milk and starter to optimize calf growth and gastrointestinal tract development. Starter grain plays a very important role in developing the calf into a ruminant.

Maturation of the gastrointestinal tract does not happen overnight, so developing a nutrition plan that allows room for starter grain will provide the most consistent nursery calf that can successfully transition into the heifer grower phase.  end mark

Noah Litherland
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