Calf Nutrition & Accelerated Feeding - Frequently asked questions and misconceptions

Calf Nutrition & Accelerated Feeding - Frequently asked questions and misconceptions

No shows this year, so here are the questions we are often asked:

Will my calves scour if I feed more milk?

If you feed too much milk in one feed, it may overload the abomasum and cause a nutritional scour. If you feed small amounts but more often, this is perfect – like mum does, more natural, and the calf takes more milk over 24 hours and converts it efficiently at the right stage of its life. This improves life-long performance, not just to 12 weeks. Their muck is likely to be looser on high milk levels, but looser muck is not a scour, the calf’s temperature is a clue. Calves have been under-fed for years! 2L twice a day is close to maintenance level!

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Will it cost me more money to feed a calf more milk?

Yes, but only in the short term. They grow more quickly, reaching target weight earlier. This is the most efficient time to grow the frame. A well-fed calf is a healthy calf and is more able to fight disease which saves time and money on vet’s bills. Don’t forget the bigger picture here - getting this stage right also leads to heifers reaching bulling weight sooner than limit fed heifers, and the really big bonus is more milk solids in their first and subsequent lactations which far outweighs your initial investment in the milk powder! Spending large amounts of money on high genetic merit semen is also wasted if you then under feed your calves. Who wouldn’t want calves to express their true genetic potential when you have spent that money? The old saying ‘90% of the breeding goes in at the mouth’ is still valid.

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If I feed ad-lib milk, will my calves just keep drinking?

No. – Just try it! They will restrict themselves on ad-lib, taking feeds little and often. Why would they gorge if milk is there all the time? Ad lib calves never feel desperately hungry, so they do not panic and drink too much. Feeding 2L twice a day leaves calves still feeling hungry and when the feeder is removed, they will suck ears and navels to try and satisfy their appetite. This habit can lead to navel sucking in limit fed calves.

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Will feeding more milk lower starter intake?

Feeding elevated levels of milk can slow initial starter intake, however calves on higher milk levels will eat as much, or more starter at weaning than calves fed lower amounts of milk. (Ref. LifeStart Program) Feeding too much dry feed at a young age may lead to acidosis and affect rumen development.

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Shall I dilute the milk to stop them drinking too much?

No! If you make the mixture more dilute, they will drink even more liquid as they crave dry matter, and the beds will get wetter. Calves restrict their own dry matter intake and it was interesting to witness milk intakes dropped from an av. of 12-14L/day down to 9L/day on ad-lib when changing from a traditional powder to one of the new nutrient dense ‘ energized calf milk ‘ powders.

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How will I find time to feed my calves more often?

There are ways round this, and it does not have to cost a small fortune either. Using an ad-lib milk feeder like a Heatwave Milk Warmer is a low-cost system, or a computerized auto feeder will also save labour and allow calves to feed more often. These systems allow you to check calves and top up milk at a time which is convenient to you – not when the school run is about to start! Computerized machines will generate feed plans to suit your system and calves are weaned slowly but surely.

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How do I wean calves when they are on ad-lib milk?

There are 2 ways depending on the age and size of calves in the group:

If the calves are of similar size and can be weaned as a group, reduce the temperature of the milk and place the inlet tubes in COLD water for the 12 hours at night. Increase the amount of time they have access to water and palatable dry feed, and wean over 7-10 days, until they are totally on cold water and dry feed. DO NOT LET THE TEAT RUN DRY, or they will chew the teats! At this stage remove the teats from the pen and let them settle onto ad lib cake, straw and water.

If the group of calves are of mixed size, draft any animals which have doubled their birthweight, and are 6-8 weeks old into a separate pen, and put on a once a day 3 litre feed, then 2L, then 1 litre, so the concentration remains the same but the volume is reduced over 7 days. Once they are ruminating and eating a minimum of 1.5 kg of cake a head then remove the milk completely. Ad lib fresh water is very important to stimulate feed intakes and rumen development.

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Alan Dickson