Quality milk in the right amount is vital to health

Quality of milk and consistency of feeding are crucial to realising the potential of dairy-born calves, as Aly Balsom finds out.

Feeding calves so they grow to their full genetic capability in the first month of life will ensure they have enhanced feed conversion efficiency (FCE) for the rest of their life.

However, according to US vet and calf specialist Sam Leadley, his experience in the UK suggests many farmers are under feeding their calves at this crucial stage.

“I have visited farmers who are feeding 400g a day of milk replacer in the belief calves will gain 500g a day, but this is not providing enough energy and protein.”

Milk intakes need to provide calves with enough nutrients to meet maintenance requirements, with anything above this being used for growth. Ideally, calves should double their weight in the first 60 days of life, meaning they need to gain 600-700g a day.

“The aim should be for calves to gain a minimum of 500g a day. Calves are very efficient at digesting milk, and if you feed morning and evening, you can achieve a good FCE of 70%. This means you need to feed 700g of milk replacer a head a day.”

In fact, Steve Jones, farm manager at Cannington College, recommends feeding 900g a day to achieve daily liveweight gain (DLWG) of more than 800g to help meet two-year calving-in targets. Feed rate can be upped more for dairy beef to achieve quicker growth rates.


Mr Leadley explains that failing to provide adequate energy and protein can also have negative effects on disease status. “Calves on a restricted diet of 400g a day do not have enough energy and protein to fight disease, meaning they take longer to recover from infection and also suffer with worse intensity of infection.”

The problem is further exaggerated when temperatures drop to below 16C – maintenance requirements increase and consequently when calves are on a restricted diet, there is no energy for any growth.

“Even if you feed enough colostrum in the first few hours, if milk quality is insufficient, you will still experience problems with growth and disease.” To increase intakes, producers can either step-up feed rates or milk concentration.

There are a number of milk feeding options available. Mr Leadley, Mr Jones and Simon Marsh, from Harper Adams College, run through the pros and cons of each:

1. Once-a-day restricted

Calves are fed a restricted amount of milk at one time


• A 43% saving in labour has been identified by moving to once-a-day feeding at three weeks old

• Earlier concentrate intakes

• Dairy beef bull calves purchased at about 20 days old had increased DLWG from start to three weeks weaning and were weaned 1.9 days earlier on once-a-day versus twice-a-day (Harper Adams)


• Once-a-day feeding at just five days old has been shown to have a detrimental effect on performance (Harper Adams)

• Restricted once-a-day feeding can increase disease risk

Key considerations

• Calves should only be moved on to once-a-day when consuming at least 0.25kg concentrate a day at about three weeks of age and is recommended for purchased calves at this age

• Calves will need the same amount of milk powder as on twice a day

• Stock must still be checked at least twice a day.

2. Twice-a-day restricted 

Calves are fed a restricted amount of milk twice a day


• Practical in terms of labour

• Spreads out feeding compared to once-a-day and give more opportunity for calves to receive adequate milk solids


• Concentrating feeding in two set periods

Key considerations

• In cold weather, it is worth upping feed frequency to three times a day for smaller breeds such as Jerseys, which have less body reserves. This reduces disease incidence.

3. Ad lib

Calves have continuous access to milk and can drink as much as they like


• FCE is enhanced as calves are able to eat small, multiple meals

• The system recognises biological variation between calves

• Reading University found Holstein heifers reared on warm ad-lib milk replacer achieved 1.04kg DLWG in their first six weeks and went on to yield two litres more a day in their first lactation versus those fed warm restricted replacer


• Requires careful management

• Consider increased costs – an ad-lib system could treble your milk usage

• May discourage concentrate intake, which is crucial for rumen development

• A Harper Adams trial found dairy bull calves fed ad-lib milk powder from five weeks old drank about 12 litres a head a day. However, these calves were not used to concentrates and suffered growth checks later

Key considerations

• Extra care is needed when it comes to colostrum and overall management, as calves will have to be group housed, increasing the disease challenge

• The system usually requires acidified milk to prevent milk spoilage – this needs to be stirred regularly and kept at 16-18C. Barrels should be insulated or topped up throughout the day to prevent milk from warming, which may encourage gorging.

4. Computerised

Milk is automatically fed to calves from the milk feeding system. Individual intakes, temperature and feeding interval can be controlled


• Can modify settings to suit individual calf and farm needs and step down milk feeding to encourage concentrate intakes

• The University of Edinburgh’s Langhill Farm has cut calf rearing labour by half and helped achieve a 24% increase in DLWG


• Expense

• Good technology skills required

Key considerations

• Extra care is needed when it comes to colostrum and overall management as calves will have to be group housed, increasing the disease challenge

Milk management top tips

• Don’t just follow manufacturer guidelines – aim to feed 700g of milk replacer a day to achieve a minimum growth rate of 500g a day

• Consistency of timing, quantity, quality and temperature is vital

• Feeding warm milk at 38-39C as in nature, will reduce nutritional scours problems – stand whole milk in a bucket of warm water to heat up and invest in a thermometer to check temperature

• Don’t skimp on quality – calves won’t catch up later on. Powder should have a crude protein level of 20-23% and oil at 17-19%. It should also contain less than 5% wheat protein, otherwise young calves will be unable to digest it

• Ideally, teats/buckets should be placed at head height – this encourages closure of the oesophoegal groove

• Ensure top-notch cleanliness when feeding/mixing – test milk twice a year for bacteria levels for an indication of levels and type of bacteria

• Clean buckets and teats between calves with hypochlorite and a detergent at the end of feeding to prevent disease spread

• House calves in a dry, draught-free environment

• Give access to good quality concentrates from a week old

• Always provide access to water

Case study: Darnlaw Farm

Robert Sloan has found good youngstock management an integral part of his plans to increase herd size following the construction of a new dairy unit at Darnlaw, Auchinleck, Ayrshire.

Up until October this year, all youngstock, from the 165-cow pedigree Holstein herd, were fed milk replacer by bucket from eight to nine days of age until 90 days old.

Now, the calves are fed milk powder via an automatic milk feeder starting at 3-3.5kg/day, building up to 7kg/day at about 50 days old, before being automatically weaned off at 70 days old.

Mr Sloan said: “We were originally bucket feeding for longer – to 90 days of age – but with the automatic feeder we are feeding them to about 70 days old.

“We only feed the calves milk replacer, and not any whole milk, to control Johne’s disease. If we do ever feed whole milk, the calves will only ever get it from their own dam.”

Case study: Roses Farm

Good colostrum management and a smooth transition into milk replacer feeding has paid dividends for James Tripconey at Roses Farm, Black Rock, Camborne, Cornwall.

All youngstock from the 120-cow Friesian herd are fed a whey-based milk replacer, which is gradually introduced following five days of colostrum feeding.

The 56-day milk feeding regime, starts out at four litres a day and gradually rises to six litres a day. The transition from colostrum to milk replacer is as follows:

• Five days of 100% colostrum (collected from cows in the first eight milkings)

• Five days of 70% colostrum and 30% milk replacer

• 14 days of 30% colostrum and 70% milk replacer

• 32 days of 100% milk replacer.

Mr Tripconey says: “I was really surprised with the automatic feeding, because despite being on up to six litres of milk a day they are still consuming a lot of dry feed and starter pellets.

“For me it’s all about job satisfaction, and if I have got healthy calves, it makes me happy. We are really keen to get on top of growth rates – we aim to get 0.85kg/day – to make sure we have the heifers calving down at 24 months.”

Related articles

Whole milk versus milk replacer

Once-a-day milk feeding could speed up weaning

Trials show benefit of whey-based calf milk replacer

Factsheet 2: Milk feeding

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