Consider Feeding Calves Three Times Per Day

Consider Feeding Calves Three Times Per Day

Better growth rates will result

Feeding the next generation of dairy cows a little more often could be beneficial to long-term production.

Historically, calves were fed twice a day because producers only milked cows twice a day. As a result, calves have been fed improperly for more than 100 years, says Donald Sockett, epidemiologist/microbiologist for the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Dairy Today red dot

Bonus Content

Sockett's presentation

A normal calf will nurse its mother eight to 12 times per day in the first seven days of life. “As calves get bigger, they will nurse larger volumes per meal and less frequently,” Sockett says.

By one month in age, calves will nurse approximately four times per day.

Sockett sees a lot of calves come through his diagnostic lab that passed away from abomasitis. Some of the cases are related to bacteria loads in the milk, but Sockett believes many cases could be prevented if feeding frequency was increased.

When calves are only fed twice a day, the abomasum sits empty too long, according to a recent study. This causes low pH levels to result and it might lead to stomach ulcerations.

Sockett and his team have conducted research at the University of Wisconsin to look at the impact of feeding milk replacer three times a day compared to twice a day. Seventy Holstein calves were split into two feeding groups: 2X feeding and 3X feeding.

There was no difference in starter intake up to six weeks of age. But when the weaning process began by feeding calves once a day, there was a marked increase for calves on the 3X feeding treatment.

The reason those 3X fed calves ate more starter was they had higher maintenance requirements because they were much larger, Sockett says.

“The calves were already bigger at 10 days of age, fed 3X per day,” Sockett adds. “Isn’t it amazing that if we feed the calves more like momma, they would do better?”


Calves fed 3X gained 65.7 lb. from birth to 42 days of age, while 2X fed calves gained 55.34 lb. Feed efficiency also increased with 3X feeding calves at 0.61 gain per dry matter intake compared to 0.52 for 2X calves.

On the production side, calves fed 3X were more likely to enter the lactating herd than 2X.

“Five to 10 years from now, the normal standard in our industry will be feeding calves a minimum of three meals per day,” Sockett adds. 

Back to news


Spell Check

Arthur Welser
latham, NY
2/13/2015 09:38 PM

  I haven't seen any data to back up my theory, but bovines are herding animals and think they should be paired together and will do better and be more observable if paired, cutting feeding time nearly in half.


Corn College TV Education Series


Get nearly 8 hours of educational video with Farm Journal's top agronomists. Produced in the field and neatly organized by topic, from spring prep to post-harvest. Order now!


Market Data provided by
Brought to you by Beyer