Nutrition: Nutrition for Preweaning Calves

February 1, 2012 11:58 AM


**Extended comments highlighted in blue.
Peck blue webBy Jim Peck
With tighter margins and increased costs, the cost of raising calves, especially baby calves, often gets a critical review.

Whether it’s purchased milk replacer, waste milk or the farm’s whole milk, there is a temptation to save money.
On the other hand, there is good evidence that attention to getting calves started right has significant benefits on first lactation and lifetime production.
The evidence is mounting that growth rate and health-related factors during the first 50 days of the milk feeding period can have a benefit of as much as 1,500 to 2,000 lb. of additional milk production during the first lactation.
Calves that can be fed at rates to double their birth weight by weaning, and that don’t have health issues severe enough to require antibiotic treatment, outperform calves raised under conventional programs resulting in more traditional growth rates.
The bottom line is that higher rates of gain in preweaning calves have been shown to benefit producers by an additional $150 or more.
The overall goal is to have the calves gain enough to double their body weight by weaning at seven weeks, or 49 days. It takes several important management practices to make this happen.
Start with good facilities. Clean, well-ventilated, dry housing is a must. Well managed hutches continue to be the gold standard from the calf’s viewpoint. From a people standpoint, labor efficiency, working conditions in cold and hot weather, and cost per unit makes some other systems more attractive.
Next, newborn calves should get 4 qt. of clean colostrum within one hour of birth and another 2 qt. of colostrum 12 hours later. Dirty or high-bacteria colostrum will compromise the benefit.
If the calf will not suckle on a bottle, use an esophageal tube. It is unlikely a calf will get enough colostrum by nursing.
Use high-quality milk replacers or whole milk that is properly processed to maintain quality and a low bacteria level. Milk replacer should mimic milk for nutritional quality. The specifications of the milk replacer should be 25% to 28% crude protein. It should be 15% to 20% fat for the warmer summer months and up to 25% fat for the colder months.
These replacers are typically available as premium products. The higher fat will help to compensate for higher body heat losses in the colder weather.
Feed the replacer at 1.5% of body weight from day 2 to day 7 and at 2% of body weight from day 8 to day 42. Mix to a liquid diet of 15% solids. If feeding whole milk, feed to an equivalent of 12% to 14% of body weight. Start at 12% and increase to 14% after seven days.
Calves should have access to free-choice water at all times. Start a dry grain starter after eight days. The starter should be 20% to 22% crude protein on a dry matter basis. It should be dust- and mold-free. It could be a textured feed or a high-quality pellet, as long as it is palatable to the calves. Calves should be consuming 2 lb. of grain per day at weaning.
Hay should be avoided until after weaning. Calves may eat high-quality hay in preference to the grain that they need, but that would compromise their energy intake.
Following weaning, nutrient intake and rate of gain should be managed to continue aggressive rates of growth and development. However, it appears that an emphasis on early growth and development during the milk feeding period is critical in gaining the first lactation production benefit.

JIM PECK is an independent nutrition consultant based in Newark, N.Y. You can contact him at


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