Feeding Calves More Pays Off in the Long Run
The Canadian National Dairy Study from 2015 showed that on average, dairy farmers are feeding their calves a maximum of 8 litres of milk or milk replacer a day. However, a third of producers are feeding less than 6 litres of milk per day, which by industry standards, is inadequate. Many benefits can be achieved when feeding calves more than 8 L per day. In fact, calves will easily drink 8-12 litres a day if they are not limited.
The benefits of feeding calves more have been well documented in research, and calves fed 8 litres per day or more will have improved:
Rates of resolution of diarrhea
Utilization of energy and crude protein for body weight gained
Age at first calving
Body weight at calving, milk production, and milk fat yield
A heifer calf fed more milk will be able to increase mammary gland mass and development which results in increased milk production down the road. Average daily gain is a simple way to estimate these production increases. It is something that can be calculated on farm with a little bit of time and record keeping.
Compare the ADGs that can be expected with different quantities of milk feeding:
Milk Volume Fed – Expected Average Daily Gain
4-5 L – 0.5 kg
8 L or more 0.8 kg - 1.2 kg
With every additional 100 g of average daily gain (over the 0.5 kg minimum), an additional 155 kg of milk production can be expected in the first lactation. This shows that feeding more milk is a huge opportunity for producers to maximize the performance of their replacement heifers, in addition to the many other health benefits mentioned above.
So how can this be achieved on farm?
Labour is an obvious limiting factor when deciding how to increase milk volume fed to calves. It is important to keep in mind that feedings should not exceed 4.5 L at a time. Ideally, the frequency of feeding is increased. However, if this cannot be done, a maximum of 8-9 L of milk a day could be provided in 2 feedings. If calves are currently being fed much less than this, this feeding volume should be gradually achieved through a slower increase, in order to avoid digestion issues like bloat, rumen acidosis and abomasal ulcers. Lastly, if more milk is going to be fed to calves, it should be clean and of consistent quality. A common misconception is that feeding more milk results in scours. This is likely true if the milk is not clean and has increased bacterial contamination and is then fed in higher amounts. However if milk is clean and increased gradually, more scours is unlikely.