Traditional calf feeding programs have fed calves 2 quarts of milk or milk replacer twice daily with weaning sometime between 6 and 12 weeks of age. This is based upon the concept that limiting energy from milk stimulates early intake of dry feed which favors earlier weaning and lower cost. However, this practice is unique when compared to feeding behavior of all other mammals in which the young consume milk at will from their dam. More liberal milk or milk replacer feeding programs for preweaned dairy calves have gained favor with the adoption of acidified free choice and computer controlled autofeeders. With the acidified free choice milk feeding systems there is no limit to how much calves can consume. However, there is a tendency for other feeding systems to gradually increase the liquid diet over days or weeks. The concern is that allowing the calf to consume large quantities of milk or milk replacer will cause digestive stress and diarrhea.
Workers at the University of British Columbia compared growth and health of calves fed milk ad libitum (free choice) to calves fed at 10% of body weight per day. Ad lib fed calves consumed up to 9 liters/day by 5 days of age followed by a slight reduction in intake until 14 days when milk intake rose to more than 10 L/day (1 liter = 1.05 quarts). Calves on both treatments were weaned by gradually diluting their milk with water beginning 35 days of age with weaning by 42 days. In both groups starter intake was negligible for the first 3 weeks with a slight advantage to limit-fed calves. By 9 weeks of age there was no difference in starter intake and there was no difference in incidence of diarrhea. However, the ad lib calves weighed 18 lb. more at the end of the trial. A similar trial on a German dairy farm using calf autofeeders found that calves allowed ad libitum intake consumed over 10 liters/day within 4 days of entering the autofeeder facility with intake peaking above 14 liters/day. These two studies demonstrate that calves will consume more than 4 quarts of milk or milk replacer early in life. This added nutrition provides needed energy for growth and health which is especially important during cold weather.
When allowed to consume milk or milk replacer according to appetite, calves will eat smaller amounts at one time but more frequently. Attempting to feed large volumes of milk in two feedings per day with uneven intervals between feedings has not been successful because the volume of liquid may exceed the stomach capacity of the calf. With higher liquid feeding rates, the quality of the milk or milk replacer is important. High bacteria count milk or lower quality milk replacers would be more likely to cause digestive upsets in the young calf.
These studies and the experience of producers has shown that higher levels of intake are readily achieved by calves early in life with autofeeder or acidified free choice systems or when calves are fed more frequently (3Xdaily) at uniform intervals with buckets or bottles.
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Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; M. Ray McKinnie, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State University, Petersburg.
February 26, 2016