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Intensified milk-feeding programs and their effect on calves

Emily Miller-Cushon Published on 24 August 2015

Feeding programs for dairy calves vary widely between farms today, influencing both the behavior and performance of the calf early in life and potentially having longer-term effects on the growing heifer.

Traditionally, calf feeding programs have focused on encouraging early solid feed intake and, consequently, supporting early weaning through restricting milk allowance to 1 to 1.5 gallons per day of milk or milk replacer.

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In comparison, when provided free access to milk, calves are easily able to double their intake compared to conventional restricted feeding. Conventional feeding programs typically support weight gains of 0.5 to 1 pound per day, whereas intensified milk-feeding programs have growth rates of 1.5 to 2.5 pounds per day.

Interest surrounding intensified milk-feeding programs has largely been due to the potential to optimize performance later in life. Recent research indicates increased weight gain of calves early in life is associated with improved performance, such as reduced age at calving and increased milk production once they reach their first lactation.

Milk-feeding programs also affect behavior of the calf. When calves have unlimited access to milk or milk replacer, they feed frequently – for example, eight to 10 meals a day – and spend more time feeding at certain times of day, such as sunrise and sunset (Figure 1). This feeding pattern is similar to a calf suckling the cow, indicating that intensified milk-feeding programs allow for more natural feeding behavior of the calf.

calf feeding time

When calves are provided restricted amounts of milk, they spend much less time feeding, and their behavior suggests they feel hungry. For example, they may return to the feeder frequently or spend considerable amounts of time sucking on the teat after finishing their milk.

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Implementation of intensified milk-feeding programs on farm presents new challenges and opportunities for calf-rearing.

One challenge is that the successful weaning of calves provides large milk allotments. Research points to gradual weaning (over a period of at least 10 days) as an effective approach to encourage solid feed intake and facilitate a smooth transition at weaning.

In many cases, intensified milk-feeding is being adopted hand-in-hand with group housing. Group housing allows for social facilitation of feeding behavior, meaning calves will consume more solid feed prior to weaning.Calves housed in groups also vocalize less frequently and gain weight more consistently through weaning, likely due to both increased intake of starter before weaning and reduced stress.

In a recent study comparing the development of feeding behavior of intensively fed calves housed individually or in pairs prior to weaning, we found that pair-housed calves had more frequent meals of both milk and solid feed.

Social contact is clearly beneficial for the calf, yet competition for access to milk in a group environment may pose problems. Housing of calves in large groups (such as 20 to 40 calves) is common when calves are fed by an automated milk feeder.

Automated calf feeders are a major factor in the growing adoption of intensified feeding programs. These feeders reduce manual labor, facilitate group housing while monitoring individual intakes and provide control over feeding schedules and weaning programs. However, feeding calves in larger groups may cause longer wait times for access to the feeder and increased displacements.

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In a study comparing the effects of teat availability on behavior of pair-housed calves, even minimal competition for milk (one teat per pair of calves) resulted in more frequent displacements at the teat and reduced milk intake and growth in the first weeks of life. In this study, calves often approached the feeder together even when only one teat was available, suggesting calves may struggle to adapt to a feeding environment with few feeding spaces.

Early management may also have longer-term effects on behavior. In a recent study, calves raised in pairs prior to weaning had more frequent meals than calves previously housed individually once all calves were group-housed after weaning.

This difference in feeding frequency persisted for the duration of the study, which concluded five weeks after weaning. Other studies have also shown early social contact influences the development of social behavior and increases the ability of the calf to cope with competitive feeding.

Early experiences with competition for feed also shape post-weaning feeding and social behavior. We found that calves raised with limited teat availability continued to displace each other more frequently after weaning, even once they had access to ample feeding spaces.

Calves previously raised in a competitive feeding environment also had greater rates of intake, which is a common response to competitive pressure.

In this study, differences in competitive behavior arising from different pre-weaning experiences persisted at the conclusion of the study – six weeks after weaning – suggesting competitive behavior for access to feed may become persistent once learned. At the moment, it is not clear whether these differences in behavior due to early experience may persist into adulthood.

Intensified feeding programs can help prepare calves for a healthy, productive life. Group housing for intensively fed calves has a number of benefits, including supporting normal social development and encouraging solid feed intake early in life.

However, competition for access to milk should be minimized. It is important to be aware that the experiences a calf has early in life – dependent on the feeding program and management – have the potential to influence how that calf behaves and handles different management scenarios for a longer period of time after weaning. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Emily Miller-Cushon
  • Emily Miller-Cushon

  • Assistant Professor
  • Department of Animal Sciences
  • University of Florida
  • Email Emily Miller-Cushon

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