Milk Allowance for Calves Can There be Too Much of a Good Thing?

Dairy nutritionists used to recommend that we feed a calf 10% of its body weight in milk or milk replacer. For a 100 lb calf that means about 4.5 L or 4.75 quarts per day. However, over the last decade or more, we have evidence that feeding more milk than that is good for the calf –- better weight gain, immune system development and response, and disease resistance -- and good for milk production in their first lactation. But, how should we be providing that extra milk or milk replacer? Should we step up their liquid feeding or feed it all at once? What effect does feeding more milk have on the calf?

In the September issue of the Journal of Dairy Science is a report from investigators in the Upper Midwest looking at differences in calves fed a gradual increase in pasteurized milk (incremental group) to those fed a large amount from day two of life. Over 1,200 calves were enrolled in the study from 5 farms. Calves in the incremental group were slowly increased to a 6 to 8 liter per day feeding over the first two weeks of life compared to the fixed-fed calves that received 6 to 8 liters per day from the second day of life. The researchers looked at differences in weight gain, hip height, and disease rates (from farm treatments as well as technician health scores).

Calves in the fixed feeding group gained 3 lbs more (on average) and were slightly taller at the hip by the third week of age compared to the incremental group (controlling for all other important factors). There was no effect of feeding program on the odds of being treated or having a clinical score indicating they were ‘sick’ with diarrhea or respiratory disease. The mortality rate across all farms was 1.5 % and there was no difference between the feeding groups.

The results indicate that the calves will gain weight better and not be at risk for scours with higher feeding levels (6 to 8 liters) in early life, as some might fear ‘nutritional scours’. The authors suggest that some producers or farm employees might categorize the softer stools of calves drinking more milk with being diarrhea, but these calves do not really need to be treated (see the reference on calf health scoring below). More milk is better.