Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Lifetime milk production starts at birth

Tom Earleywine Published on 30 April 2013

Calves represent the future of every dairy herd, and delivering proper nutrients during their first critical hours of life is vital to their survival. It’s been well-documented that there are long-term benefits of feeding high-quality colostrum and feeding to a higher plane of nutrition.

Feeding high-quality colostrum
We know that if calves do not receive enough high-quality colostrum, they will not achieve passive transfer. Calves that do not achieve passive transfer are less able to fight off disease challenges because they do not have adequate antibodies.



Calves with failure of passive transfer also have 50 percent less feed efficiency, delayed time to first calving and decreased milk and fat production during the first lactation.

A higher plane of nutrition
Researchers have found that calves fed to a higher plane of nutrition calve 22 days earlier on average and produce 1,700 pounds more milk in the first lactation.

In fact, eight university trials show that calves fed a higher plane of nutrition from birth to weaning had higher milk production in their first lactation than those that were not.

Recent work from Cornell University further examines the long-term benefits of feeding to a higher plane of nutrition in two herds.

One herd showed that for every pound of pre-weaning average daily gain (ADG), heifers produced 1,874 pounds more milk during their first lactation. In the second herd, for every pound of pre-weaning ADG milk yield increased by 2,456 pounds of milk in the first lactation.


Researchers concluded that the relationship between pre-weaning nutrition and higher-lactation milk yield is consistent, but the magnitude of the response might be different between herds.

The Cornell study also examined the relationship between pre-weaning ADG and milk yield in subsequent lactations. Researchers found that there was a positive correlation between second-lactation and third-lactation milk yield and pre-weaning nutrition.

They concluded that “the effect of early life nutrition and management previously attributed only to the first lactation can now be discussed in terms of lifetime productivity.”

A winning combination
The benefits of high-quality colostrum and feeding to a higher plane of nutrition are well-documented. But work from the University of Illinois shows that the results from pairing these two programs trump either as a stand-alone practice.

In this study, calves were classified by their IgG status as having successful passive transfer or failure of passive transfer. Calves were then offered a conventional feeding program or fed to a higher plane of nutrition.

Results showed that all calves fed to a higher plane of nutrition, regardless of IgG status, had better ADG. But those calves with a higher IgG status and a higher plane of nutrition had the greatest ADG and outshone all of the other calves.


The University of Illinois researchers conclude, “growth factors or other components in the colostrum may enable calves to more efficiently use the greater nutrient supply for rapid body growth.”

Achieve the results
To harvest these long-term milk production benefits, start with a sound colostrum management program. Experts agree that calves should be removed from their dam immediately following birth.

This prevents the spread of disease and increases the likelihood that newborns will consume adequate amounts of clean, maternal colostrum or a high-quality colostrum replacer.

Calves should receive 3 quarts of high-quality (more than 50 mg per ml of IgG) colostrum within one hour of birth via nipple bottle or 4 quarts administered by esophageal feeder within one hour of birth.

A high-quality USDA-approved colostrum replacement fed to provide at least 150 g of IgG will also do the job efficiently and effectively.

Next, manage for 1.6 to 2.0 pounds of ADG per large-breed calf through the pre-weaning phase. Small-breed calves should achieve 1.1 to 1.6 pounds of ADG.

This can be achieved by feeding as close to 2.5 pounds (1.8 for small breeds) of dry matter per calf per day as possible in two or preferably three or more feedings, regardless of whether you feed milk, milk replacer or pasteurized waste milk.

The goal is to double a calf’s birthweight and have her grow 4 to 5 inches taller by the time she reaches 56 days old.

Other goals are less than 5 percent calf mortality and less than 10 percent of calves receiving treatments for scours and other diseases.

The advantages to starting calves off with a sound colostrum program and raising calves on a higher plane of nutrition are many.

Benefits may include reduced age at first calving, potential for internal herd growth, reduced calf treatment costs and potentially longer herd life and optimal milk production. PD

For more information, email Earleywine or contact him at (800) 618-6455.

Earleywine has a Ph.D. in dairy science from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and is director of nutritional services for Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products.

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


Tom Earleywine
Director of Nutritional Services
Land O’Lakes