Feeding More Milk Without Sacrificing Starter Grain Intake – Dr. Noah Litherland, Vita Plus
The success of a nursery calf program can be measured by achieving optimal health and growth in the first half of the nursery phase, and developing a fully functional rumen in the second half. One of the many reasons these goals aren’t always achieved is insufficient starter grain intake.
By the end of a 56-day nursery phase, a calf will consume 1.3 to 1.8 pounds of starter grain per day. A good goal for many farms is to exceed 1.8 pounds per day of starter intake.
Many producers seek feeding strategies to feed maximum whole milk without blunting starter grain intakes, but many factors can affect those starter grain intakes.
Milk composition impacts growth and starter intake
Increased growth requires increased nutrient demands. The amount of energy and protein a calf receives from whole milk is determined by the composition of the milk, which varies by breed and stage of lactation.
Table 1 shows a comparison of whole milk composition during weeks 1 and 4. Altering the solids amount and composition results in changes in nutrient intake. Monthly testing of milk composition will help you find an appropriate milk feeding program and avoid compromising starter grain intake.
How much milk to feed?
Another factor affecting starter grain intake is the amount of milk you feed the calves, particularly the amount of milk fat. Studies have shown feeding more than 280 grams of milk fat (about 2.5 sticks of butter) per day decreases starter intake below 1.5 pounds per day. Table 2 shows how varying amounts of milk affect starter intakes.
Additionally, milk diets with appropriate protein and energy supplies will contribute to adequate starter grain intakes. In my opinion, a feeding rate of 1.6 to 2.0 pounds of milk solids per day results in the most consistent growth and starter grain intakes.
Why is starter grain important for dairy calves?
Calves are grown from the inside out – this doesn’t happen overnight.
Although starter grain serves many purposes, its principal purpose is to regulate rumen maturation. Second only to calf health, achieving adequate starter grain intake during the nursery phase is the most important factor impacting success in the grower phase.
Some of the many positive impacts of starter grain intake on calf growth and health include:
- Rumen tissue development for successful absorption of volatile fatty acids (VFAs)
- Increased energy and microbial protein from fermentation of starter grain in the rumen
- Slowed GI tract passage and increased nutrient absorption
- Increased microbial mass and diversity (competitive environment for pathogens)
- B-vitamin production from bacterial fermentation important to energy metabolism
- Consumption of an adequate amount of coccidiostat
- Cud chewing and rumination stimulation while resting
- Consumption of 4 to 5 pounds of water per pound of starter (water is the primary component of skeletal muscle)
- Increased colonic health for water absorption and fecal consistency
- Supplemental vitamins and trace minerals not adequately provided in whole milk
Nursery calf nutrition programs should provide a balance of nutrients from milk and starter to optimize calf growth and GI tract development. Starter grain plays an important role in developing the calf into a ruminant. Maturation of the GI tract does not happen overnight. Developing a nutrition plan that allows room for starter grain will provide the most consistent nursery calf to successfully transition into the heifer grower phase.
Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care