Nutritional Management of Calves: Let�s Take Another Look
Dr. Ronald L. Boman
USU Extension Dairy Specialist

The last week of November we had the good fortune to have Dr. Michael Van Amburgh from Cornell University as the principal speaker for the annual 2001 Utah Dairy Seminars. He is doing cutting edge research on nutrition and growth biology of dairy calves. He made several points that really make sense, and he has the controlled research data to back up what he told us. I would like to summarize some of the valuable points that he made.

  1. Added emphasis on the importance of colostrum. He pointed out that calves that don�t get a transfer of antibodies from the colostrum (even if they live) grow at about 2/3 the rate of calves that receive sufficient high quality colostrum to build up the antibody level in their blood. Thus, he recommends one (1) gallon of high quality colostrum (fed or tubed) immediately after birth.
  2. Awareness of the amount and quality of milk replacers. We probably have been stunting dairy calves and making them more prone to diseases by limiting milk or milk replacer in an attempt to get them to consume calf starter. He pointed out that beef calves, lambs and piglets get much more milk as a percent of body weight than we give our baby calves. Most 20-20 milk replacers are recommended to be fed at a rate (1 lb of powder/day) that severely restricts growth at a time when growth is most efficient. He suggests feeding a 28% protein, 15% fat milk replacer and feeding it at 14%, up to even 20% (if you are willing to feed 3X/day), of body weight instead of the normal industry standard of 10%. He cited research data where rates of gain were doubled and body protein content increased and body fat decreased when milk replacers of various protein levels were fed at 14% of body weight compared to feeding these same milk replacers at 10% of body weight. He also quoted Danish research (they feed whole milk there) in which calves fed 10 lbs of milk/day from 4 days after birth today 42 gained 1.45 lbs/day, while another set of similar calves that consumed milk ad libitum at a rate of 19 lbs/day gained 2.11 lbs/day during the same time period. Both sets of calves had access to dry feed also. Interestingly enough, the calves that gained at a rate of 2.11 lbs/day during the first 6 weeks of life produced 1,075 lbs more milk in their first lactation!!!
  3. Drinking water is essential for good growth. Dr. Van Amburgh really emphasized making sure that calves have drinking water available to them. He suggested that in the winter months when calf water would freeze that about an hour after feeding milk or milk replacer one could offer warm water to the calves and then come back in another hour to empty out the water that was not consumed. We have been aware for some time that water increases the consumption of calf starter, but with a 28% protein milk replacer we also need more water to rid the kidneys of the excess urea.
  4. Calves need higher protein milk replacers. Calves reared on the higher protein milk replacer fed at 14% of body weight and higher can be easily weaned at 42 days of age and they are taller and have higher body protein and lower body fat contents. Because growth has not been depressed, the immune system is operating at maximum efficiency and calves are more healthy and should remain that way through adult life.
  5. Enhanced growth rates also require higher protein calf starters. Since the rumens of young calves do not produce microbial protein, he recommends a 26.5% protein calf starter. A substantial amount of this protein would come from dried whey, animal protein blends and even some of the essential amino acids. He also recommends such easily fermented carbohydrates as dextrose or lactose, beet pulp and, of course, cereal grains.
  6. Dr. Van Amburgh�s weaning recommendations. Cut milk replacer � and feed in the morning only for one week and then stop feeding milk replacer. Keep plenty of fresh clean water available. Feed a 26 to 27% high quality protein calf starter free choice (actually this should be fed beginning after the first week).

Some DO NOTS during weaning - Don�t dehorn; don�t change housing environment; don�t vaccinate; don�t switch dry feeds; don�t group animals until one week after weaning. These concepts may be new to most of you, so feel free to contact me if they need further clarification.
Ron Boman
(435) 797-2163 or ronb@ext.usu.edu.

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