High Plane of Nutrition: Is It Worth It For Your Calves? – Augusta Hagen

Posted on June 26, 2013 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Augusta Hagen, Vita Plus dairy nutrition and management fellow

A top goal for dairy farmers and nutritionists is to raise healthy calves that will transition into long-term members of the milking herd. Although the goal is simple, many factors play a role in raising a healthy replacement, including the nutrition program.

A majority of today’s calf nutrition programs can be identified as either conventional or intensive. Conventional feeding generally offers one gallon of pasteurized milk per day or 8 to 10 ounces of a 20/20 milk replacer twice a day. The intensive program gradually ramps up the calves to reach 1 gallon of pasteurized milk or 16 ounces of 26/18 milk replacer twice a day.

Research has shown that intensive milk feeding programs have a number of benefits, such as:

  • Improved health
  • Increased average daily gains in the pre-weaning period
  • Decreased time to breeding size
  • Decreased age at first calving
  • Possible link to increase in milk production

A recent study at Michigan State University concluded that, when comparing a conventional and an intensive milk replacer, calves fed the accelerated program gained 0.44l pounds per day more pre-weaning. The calves fed the intensive program were also ready to breed 31 days earlier.

Likewise, a study published in the Journal of Dairy Science showed similar pre-weaning results when comparing the two feeding programs and also showed that intensive feeding decreases age at first calving. By increasing the amount of nutrients available to the calf, it makes sense that the calf would grow and develop more rapidly than those fed conventionally.

In addition to these improvements in performance, higher planes of nutrition may also offer immune benefits.

Dr. Mike Van Amburgh, Cornell University, suggests that an intensive feeding program boosts nutrient intake above maintenance requirements. This accounts for the effects of season and ambient temperature, resulting in less dehydration during heat stress and less energy lost due to cold stress.

From a practical standpoint, I have observed some of these benefits in my own personal experiences with feeding calves.  I noticed that increased nutrient intakes often correlated with a decrease in the frequency and duration of sick calves.  This, of course, also meant fewer treatments.  When a farm transitions to an intensive feeding program, it’s rare that I see them turn back to conventional feeding.

Intensive feeding is a big investment with increased milk volume inputs, but you need to look at the big picture.  With increased performance and immunity, matched with strong overall management, the investment can have significant payoffs.

Category: Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care