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Most calves don’t reach their full potential – do yours?

Kevin Dill for Progressive Dairyman Published on 23 November 2016

Raising a calf to become a high-producing cow is critical to a herd’s future. To help dairy producers in their quest to develop more productive animals, the last decade of industry and university research has explored the connection between calf nutrition and lactation performance.

However, the latest USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) Dairy 2014 study found the majority of calf-raisers are missing out on the opportunity and research-proven benefits of feeding full-potential diets. Do you know how your calf nutrition program compares?



Field and trial data supports feeding a higher plane of nutrition to have a positive impact on milk production. A five-year study found feeding a calf to its full genetic potential from birth to breeding can result in 2,740 pounds of additional milk in its first lactation.

Identify the gaps

Because we’ve been feeding calves the same way for so long, full-potential feeding represents a paradigm shift for dairy producers. However, elevating a calf nutrition program to a full-potential diet is simple. It includes three easy steps anyone can take to invest in the future of a herd.

Step 1: Feed a full-potential milk diet

Historically, calves have been fed 2 quarts of milk replacer consisting of 20 percent protein and 20 percent fat twice a day for approximately 60 days.

Milk replacer fed to majority of pre0weaned heifers

New research and field trial data finds calves need a full-potential diet to realize their full potential; that diet starts with a 26 to 28 percent protein milk replacer at a rate of 1.8 pounds the first week and 2.5 pounds of dry matter per day thereafter. Feed this diet starting after colostrum until the weaning process begins at 7 to 8 weeks old.


The NAHMS study results found the majority of calves are missing out on nutrients. Of the 49.9 percent of operations that fed milk replacer, an alarming 89.7 percent fed a milk replacer with less than 25 percent protein.

Also, a cold-weather calf milk replacer can provide added energy during periods of cold stress. A warm-weather formula provides a unique combination of carbohydrates correctly balanced for when temperatures moderate. This approach to feeding is designed to be cost-efficient in meeting the calf’s needs.

Step 2: Feed 22 percent starter, wean based on starter intake

The NAHMS study results show half of dairy producers are falling short by taking the traditional approach of weaning based on the calf’s age.

Milk replacer fed to majority of pre-weaned heifers

With a full-potential calf feeding program, calves should not be weaned based on age. Weaning should occur when a calf is able to eat 2 to 3 pounds of 22 percent protein starter for three days in a row.

Research by Mike Van Amburgh, Ph.D., at Cornell University, shows growth rate and nutrient intake before weaning have a more direct and significant effect on milk yield than genetic selection for milk production.


A 1-pound increase in average daily gain before weaning could increase first-lactation milk yield as much as 700 pounds. Therefore, it is critical to feed enough of the correct milk replacer and wean based on starter intake to optimize structural growth and weight gain.

Primary factor used to determine when to wean heifers

Calf starter needs to provide 100 percent of a calf’s energy and protein post-weaning until 12 weeks of life. To stimulate early intake, digestion and gut development, begin offering small amounts of starter grain at 3 days old. Increase the amount of starter offered to calves as consumption grows so the calf can eat free-choice.

Step 3: Transition to 18 percent grower

Following weaning, dairy producers typically move calves to a forage diet and essentially forget about the heifers until they are ready to be bred. This lack of attention can result in a major growth slump.

Average age of heifers at first calving

Instead, feed heifers a full-potential program to help them enter the milking herd sooner. By helping them reach breeding size more quickly, it shortens the time animals are being fed without being productive. From calf starter, transition to an 18 percent grower and limit to 10 pounds per head per day with free-choice hay.

Dairy producers have traditionally targeted 24 months for age at first calving. However, researchers have found age at first calving can be reduced without a negative impact on first-lactation milk if the calf’s growth and development needs are supported by a full-potential feeding program.

The NAHMS study found only 19 percent of farms (representing 41.6 percent of heifers) have heifers freshen at less than 24 months old.

3 steps of a full-potential calf breeding program

The post-weaning period is a critical time for rumen development. The rumen papillae grow and prepare to absorb nutrients from the high-forage diets the calf will consume during its first lactation.

If the calf doesn’t receive the proper nutrition, it might not reach puberty and breeding size as quickly or be able to realize its full milk production potential.

Invest in the future

Feed a calf to its full potential starting on day one. By feeding a higher plane of nutrition instead of maintenance levels, it has the opportunity to thrive. Provide a full-potential milk diet, 22 percent protein starter and 18 percent protein grower to support raising a well-grown, healthy calf that can enter the milking herd sooner.

Research proves the return on investment with more milk in its first lactation.

Evaluate your calf feeding program and make sure you feed your calves to reach their full potential. Delivering anything less leaves calves vulnerable to challenges that can have a negative impact on lifetime productivity.  end mark

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

Kevin Dill
  • Kevin Dill

  • Dairy Nutritionist
  • Purina Animal Nutrition
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