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Animal Health & Nutrition

RSS By: Rick Lundquist, Dairy Today

Rick Lundquist is an independent nutrition and management consultant based in Duluth, Minn. He provides livestock production advice.

Pre-weaning Calf Nutrition Affects Future Milk Production

Mar 28, 2011

Like human babies, the development of bovine babies is influenced by what happens in early life. Calves, however, are subjected to more environmental stresses, which direct more nutrients to immune responses instead of growth.

The early life nutrient status of the baby calf can influence future milk production even more than genetic selection.
The health, nutritional plane and average daily gain during the first six to eight weeks of a baby calf’s life dramatically affect her productive potential after she calves, according to Dr. Mike Van Amburgh, who presented an interesting paper on this subject at the Western Dairy Management Conference in Reno, Nev., this month. Pre-weaning nutrition can increase first lactation milk production by 1,500 lb. and lifetime milk production by 6,000 lb.
Like human babies, the development of bovine babies is influenced by what happens in early life. But unlike human babies, calves are subjected to more environmental stresses, which increase the amount of nutrients that are used for immune responses instead of growth. This requires higher levels of pre-weaning nutrient intakes than previously recommended.
Pre-weaning death losses average 8% on U.S. dairy farms. We haven’t made much progress reducing this over the years. According to Van Amburgh, calves are born with about 4% body fat, which supplies about four days of fat reserves. After the reserves are used up, she has to rely on dietary intake or body protein to generate heat and maintain adequate immunity. I’ve seen fat babies, but I can’t ever remember seeing a fat baby dairy calf.
Immunoglobulin (Ig) status is primarily influenced by colostrum quality and intake. We’ve known this for years. But the effect of adequate colostrum intake immediately after calving on subsequent milk production is surprising. Interestingly, we are now discovering other qualities and growth factors in colostrum besides Ig content that help the calf survive and grow.  
After colostrum, milk or milk replacer provide not only nutrients for maintenance and growth, but also to support the calf’s immune system to fight off diseases and environmental stresses. The thermoneutral temperature for calves is 68 – 82 degress F. Cold weather and disease siphon off nutrients otherwise used for growth. Windy and wet conditions make it worse. Typical milk replacer feeding recommendations don’t provide enough nutrients to allow for adequate growth under these conditions.
Whole milk is the gold standard. If milk replacer is fed, Van Amburgh recommends a 28% protein, 15% fat or a 28% protein, 20% fat milk replacer mixed at 15% solids. He suggests feeding this at a dry matter level of 1.5% of body weight from day two to seven and then 2% of body weight from day eight to 42. Keep water free choice and offer starter at day eight. The goal is to double a calf’s birth weight by 56 days. This will require greater milk or milk replacer intake than typical feeding programs.
Van Amburgh, M.E., F. Soberon, J.Karzses, and R.W. Everett. 2011. Taking the Long View: Treat Them Nice As Babies and They Will Be Better Adults. Proc. 10th Western Dairy Management Conference. Pp. 141-158.
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