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Extension > Agriculture > Dairy Extension > Calves and heifers > Dairy calf nutrition research update

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Dairy calf nutrition update

Hugh Chester-Jones

Pre- and post-weaning nutrition and management options for contract-raised commercial dairy heifer calves from 2 to 5 days up to 6 to 7 months of age have been implemented at the Southern Research and Outreach Center (SROC) over the last 12 years. Goals for calf performance in the nursery have been attained by both conventional moderately intensive or intensive milk feeding programs and optimum intake of a quality texturized calf starter. Post-weaning nutrition programs in group pens maintain good calf performance.

Our research is conducted as part of a unique partnership between SROC, allied industry collaborators and three commercial dairies (Bombay Dairy Co., Kenyon; Wolf Creek Dairy, Dundas; Clay View Dairy, Goodhue) representing over 2,000 dairy cows. We have the ability to track every calf that leaves the SROC back to the dairies for first lactation production data. This partnership provides over 1,000 calves for our studies each year.

The overall death loss to date for over 11,000 calves that have arrived at SROC is about 2%. Our goal is to at least double the initial body weight of each calf by 56 days (weaning at 42 days) with good hip height growth of over 4 inches. Typically within each study, twenty-five 2- to 5-day-old individually-fed calves are assigned to each diet to be tested.

Examples of recent nursery studies

Texturized calf starters with varying protein levels

Calf starter (CS) intake at SROC has improved markedly over the past 3 years since feeding a starter reformulated with digestible fiber sources. With higher intakes of CS in the first 8 weeks of life, is 18% CP in the starter still optimal?

Holstein heifer calves were assigned to 15%, 18%, 21% or 24% CP CS pre- (day 1-42) and post-weaning (day 43-56) to evaluate calf performance. All calves were fed a common all-milk protein 20% CP:20% fat MR at 0.625 lb in 4.4 lb water (12.5% solids) 2X daily for the first 35 days and 1X daily from day 36 to weaning at 42 days.

Findings: There were no daily gain differences pre- and post-weaning. Body weight gain over 56 days was 1.99, 2.07, 2.07 and 1.98 times the initial BW for calves fed 15, 18, 21, and 24%, respectively. Hip height gain approached or exceeded 4 inches. Pre-weaning CS intake was similar across diets (50.4 lb). Post-weaning and 56 day calf starter intake linearly decreased with increasing CP levels. Calves fed 18% or 21% CP CS had similar growth but tended to have better growth than calves fed 15% or 24% CP in CS.

Bottom line: There were no benefits of offering calf starter > 18% CP but 15% CP had a negative effect on calf performance.

Pasteurized waste milk vs. milk replacers

The study compared pre- (day 1 to 49) and post-weaning (day 50 to 56) performance of calves fed:

  1. all-milk, non­medicated MR 20% CP:20% fat (F) fed at 0.75 lb in 5.25 lb of water (12.5% solids) 2X daily from day 1 to 42 and 1X daily from day 43 to weaning at day 49
  2. all-milk, non­medicated MR 26% CP:31% F supplemented with additional fatty acids fed as in 1
  3. pasteurized waste milk (PWM) 28.4% CP:30.1% F fed as in 1, feeding rate adjusted daily based on measured solids
  4. PWM fed at 2X daily with 0.48 lb solids supplemented with 0.26 lb of an all-milk non-medicated 24% CP:7% F MR as in 1, adjusted for solids as in PWM.

Calf starter (CS;18%CP) and water were fed free choice day 1 to 56 as noted. Waste milk was collected twice a week from one farm then sampled, cooled, and pasteurized before each feeding.

Findings: Calves fed treatments 3 and 4 averaged 1.87 lb/day gain vs. 1.58 lb/day for calves fed 1 and 2 for the 56 day study. All groups doubled their initial BW by 56 days. Hip height gain far exceeded 4 inches. Intake of CS, day 1 to 56, was highest for 4 (106 lb) and the lowest for 2 (70.1 lb). Treatment costs were highest for calves fed 4.

Bottom line: Calves limit-fed waste milk with or without a balancer up to 1.5 lb DM daily had better performances vs. calves limit-fed a 20:20 or 26:31 MR. Calf starter intake was not compromised by the waste milk treatments. Calf growth was very acceptable.

Alternative proteins partially replacing milk protein in MR has been of interest for a number of years to offset the cost of all-milk protein MR. The concern by producers is whether calf performance is compromised.

Study 1

Individually fed Holstein heifer calves were used to evaluate pre- (day 1-42) and post-weaning (day 43-56) calf performance and health when fed milk replacers (MR) with alternative protein sources from February through April. Holstein heifer calves were assigned to non-medicated 24% CP:20% fat MR with:

  1. All-milk protein
  2. 25% of total protein from plasma
  3. 25% of total protein from plant peptide proteins
  4. 12.5% plasma, 12.5% peptide proteins

All calves were fed a non-medicated 24% CP:20% fat MR at 0.75 lb in 5.25 lb water (12.5% solids) 2X daily for the first 35 days and 1X daily day 36 to weaning at 42 day. Milk replacer feeding rate was adjusted if ambient temperatures taken 0800 h were well below zero.

Findings: There were no pre- or post-weaning gain differences. Calves averaged 1.61 lb/day gain for the 56-day study. Calves doubled their initial BW and gained 4.6 inches of hip height. There were no differences in MR and CS DM intake or gain/feed. There were no differences in health parameters.

Bottom line: Under the conditions of this study, replacing 25% of the total milk protein in MR with alternative sources resulted in calf performance and health similar to those fed an all-milk protein MR.

Study 2

Either an all-milk 22:20 MR or a blend replacing 36% of milk protein with bovine plasma and 23% of milk protein with hydrolyzed wheat gluten protein. Both MR contained Bio-Mos®, ClariFly ® and 1600 g/ton each of Neomycin sulfate and Oxytetracycline (oxy/neo) the first 14 days. Bovatec® replaced oxy/neo from 15 days until weaning. Calves were fed an 18% CP texturized CS from day 1.

Findings: Pre-weaning and overall daily gain was excellent. Both calf groups more than doubled their initial BW by 56 days and gained 4.9 inches in hip height. Pre-weaning CS intake averaged 58.5 lb and post-weaning 80.1 lb. Gain/feed was similar and there were no differences in health parameters.

Bottom line: Calves fed 22:20 MR with all-milk or alternative blended proteins performed very well under a conventional program. Calf starter intake was the key.

Good management and healthy calves are important to allow for successful feeding options to be implemented.

May 2016

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