Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Raising healthy calves

John Hibma Published on 19 September 2012


There’s been lots of discussion over the years as to what’s the best way to feed the neonatal calf. The calf-raising program on a dairy farm is a critical cog in the long-term profitability of that dairy. Replacement heifer calves represent the future of the herd both in productivity and genetics.



Yet the calf-raising program is often looked upon with varying degrees of displeasure. It’s labor-intensive and, especially when overrun with health issues, can be challenging and discouraging. When other problems arise on the farm during the day, the calves have to wait their turn.

Many times over the years have I heard words like “Oh yeah, I still have to feed the calves,” or “It’s noon, and I still haven’t fed the calves.” The newborn calf, just like any newborn creature, needs constant attention and proper nourishment.

Human babies are looked after many hours of the day, being fed, cleaned and coddled. On commercial dairy farms, cow and calf are often separated immediately after birth and the nursing function for the calf is eliminated. The neonatal calf is put on the “human” schedule of feeding, not on nature’s schedule.

Consequently, calves are often malnourished right from the start – even though caretakers may get a gallon or more of colostrum into the calves immediately after birth. By the second and third day, the calf is already put on a feeding schedule of two feedings per day, which results in an empty or nearly empty stomach for several hours of the day.

Recent research suggests that calves that have access to milk ad libitum throughout the day have fewer health challenges, grow faster and result in more productive milk cows.


The concept of group feeding programs is gaining popularity both as a way to raise healthier calves and help reduce labor costs on a dairy farm or calf-raising facility. The objective of allowing calves access to milk all day during the first two or three months after birth mimics more closely natural nursing and feeding patterns, resulting in what is often referred to as “biologically normal growth.”

The Woody Hill Dairy Farm in Salem, New York, began group feeding their calves in 2009 as an experiment to see if it was a better way to raise replacement calves. Owner Mark Cray says he and other family members were so impressed with the initial results, they began the planning process to build a new calf-raising facility designed specifically to group-feed their neonatal calves.

The new calf barn, completed at the end of 2011, holds 160 calves in 20 groups of eight. The pens are about 27 feet by 10 feet in size, each with a bank of nipples mounted on the fence. Milk is pumped around the barn in a stainless steel pipeline 24 hours per day from a holding tank that stores acidified whole milk from the dairy’s hospital herd. An automatic CIP system cleans the pipeline three times per week.

The dairy industry has embraced the use of powdered milk replacers for neonatal calves for many years. As those products become more expensive, along with the realization that whole milk still provides more protein and calories per pound of solids, many dairy farms are returning to using whole milk to feed their baby calves.

Protein is necessary for muscle and skeletal development and the amount of daily crude protein (CP) intake required by the calf increases as it grows. Neonatal calves while they are still on milk should be attaining average daily gains (ADG) of over 1.5 lbs per day.

Total intake of CP to sustain an ADG of 1.5 lbs per day is about 230 grams per day. Feeding only 1 pound at the time of birth of a 20 percent CP milk replacer will deliver only 91 grams of CP – well below the requirements for a 1.5-lb ADG.


Obviously, 2 lbs of a 20 percent CP milk replacer does not supply adequate protein to sustain that desired ADG, either. Whole milk with a CP level of 3 percent contains about 125 grams of protein in a gallon of milk.

According to Mark Cray, his young calves take to the group feeding routine very quickly and are consuming close to 2 gallons of whole milk per day, which is adequate for a 1.5-lbs-per-day ADG. By the time the calves are six weeks old, they are consuming close to 3 gallons of milk per day plus 2 lbs of a starter pellet.

Cray says that when his calves are weaned at 2 months, they have weights reflecting 2 lbs per day ADG. Along with that, Cray notes that digestive problems are nearly nonexistent. He attributes that to the fact that the calves’ stomachs are full most of the time which maintains a more consistent level of nutrients being absorbed throughout the day.

The metabolizable energy (ME) available in whole milk is 2.44 mcals per lb of solids. The ME of milk replacer, because it has a lower fat content than whole milk, contains 2.13 mcals per lb of solids. (The ME of milk replacer goes down as the CP level is increased because the powder requires more space for protein and less space for fat, which results in less energy per lb.)

Therefore, on a pounds-of-solid equivalent, whole milk also supplies more calories to a calf. This is an important factor to consider when calves are subjected to especially cold environments where ambient temperatures fall below their thermoneutral zone for extended periods of time.

When the ambient temperature drops from 60ºF to about 15ºF, the energy requirements of a calf increase by about 50 percent. The thermoneutral zone for baby calves is between 60ºF and 80ºF. Above or below that, calves require more dietary energy to compensate for the extra cold or the added heat.

Traditional neonatal calf feeding programs that limit milk solids and focus on calf starters (grains) to provide much of the ME and protein in preweaned calves have been popular for many years.

However, those programs must be well-managed or calves can quickly suffer, resulting in high mortality rates, poor growth rates and less-than-stellar milk production over their lifetime as cows. The group-feeding calf programs in which neonatal calves have unlimited access to milk are increasing in popularity and are producing healthy calves. PD

The calf-raising program on a dairy farm is a critical cog in the long-term profitability of that dairy.
Replacement heifer calves represent the future of the herd both in productivity and genetics. Photo courtesy John Hibma.


John Hibma
Central Connecticut Co-operative Farms Association