Over the past several years there has been a lot of analysis done on how we have traditionally fed our dairy calves. The conclusions have been that the dairy industry was not adequately feeding our youngest animals. The most common issues are not providing enough milk/milk replacer and not maintaining consistency in the calf feeding procedures. The results of these inadequate feeding practices can be calves that grow slowly and are more susceptible to disease. Young calves are extremely efficient at converting feed into growth. If we feed them better, we can achieve excellent growth rates that also give the calves a stronger immune system for preventing illness.
Traditionally dairy calves have been fed 2 quarts of milk/milk replacer twice a day. Milk replacers were commonly mixed at a rate of 10 oz. powder per 2 quarts. Feeding calves at these rates only gives them enough energy for maintenance needs. There is not any extra energy for growth. Now if the calves have to deal with cold temperatures or a disease challenge, they will be losing body fat as they burn it off to meet the energy demands of keeping warm or mounting an immune response. The end result is thin, weak, sick and often dead calves.
We can prevent the majority of calf illnesses by feeding calves better. There are several options of how this can be done:
1) Feed an additional milk/milk replacer feeding each day. Calves can be fed the same 2 quart feeding 3 times a day. The feeding times do not need to be exactly 8 hours apart. One UW feeding trial fed at 8am, 2:30pm and 9pm and had very good results.
2) Feed a larger volume of milk/milk replacer at each feeding. One protocol is to bump calves up to 3 quarts per feeding at one week old and then increase again to 1 gallon per feeding at 2 weeks old and continue at this feeding rate until weaning. If feeding milk replacer it is important to mix at the same concentration. For example, if you use 10 oz. of powder in 2 quarts of water, you should use 15 oz. in 3 quarts and 20 oz. in a gallon.
3) Feed a higher concentration of milk replacer powder in the same volume of water. 12 oz. of milk replacer powder per 2 quarts is a good concentration that is very comparable to whole milk. There are some aggressive-growth calf feeding protocols that use 14-15 oz. powder per 2 quarts. These aggressive protocols require very careful feeding protocols to insure consistency and the calves MUST have free-choice water available between milk feedings.
4) A combination of the above protocols. For example, calves can be fed whole milk or milk replacer at a concentration of 12 oz. powder per 2 quarts water. They can start at 2 quarts each feeding and increase to 3 quarts (18 oz. powder) at one week old and increase to 1 gallon (24 oz. powder) at two weeks old. These feedings can be done 3 times a day if desired.
No matter what calf feeding program that you use, cleanliness and consistency are crucial. Cleanliness will always help prevent disease. A lack of consistency is possible in many areas of a calf feeding program and any of those areas is capable of causing sick calves. The big three are consistent measuring and mixing of milk replacer powder, consistent temperature of milk/milk replacer when it gets to the calves (105 F is recommended), and consistent times that calves get fed. Offering warm water immediately after the milk/milk replacer feeding is a great idea for calves. Most calves will eagerly drink the water if you get it to them before they lay down. During the winter, any water that isn’t drunk quickly can be dumped into a bucket and removed before it freezes. Water intake is great for health and is crucial for calf starter intake and aggressive-growth calf feeding protocols. Our veterinarians would be happy to help you improve your calf feeding program and thus improve calf health and growth.