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By Stephanie Murphy
Dairy Specialist,
Grand Valley Fortifiers
One thing that we need to remember is that while whole milk/milk replacer is the biggest source of nutrition to the calf and the amount fed will primarily determine their growth rate until weaning. However, we also need to get them onto calf starter as soon as possible to develop the rumen. In the beginning, calves only receive liquid nutrients which bypass the reticulum and the rumen through the closed esophageal groove, sending the liquid nutrients to the omasum and abomasum where they are quickly digested. By feeding only liquid feeds we are not allowing for the growth of the rumen or the reticulum which is needed for when they start to consume forages. Therefore, it is very important that within the first week of a calf’s life we introduce dry feeds whether that be a prepared calf starter or an on farm calf TMR mix. The dry feeds are moving through the esophagus into the rumen where digestion begins and rumen papillae growth results from volatile fatty acids produced from the starch and sugars in the calf starter/ TMR. Remember to always have clean fresh free choice water available to your calves. Research shows a 45% increase in calf starter consumption when water is available. Selecting the right species and implementing good agronomy practices are critical to successfully producing winter cereal forage.

We want to ensure the calf starter is of high quality, has no dust or mold and is palatable to the calves, anything less will decrease their intakes. Ideally, we want the calves to be consuming 1 kg per day of calf starter by 8 weeks of age or approximately 3.5kg of TMR. It is important to keep the dry feed fresh, it should be a daily routine to give the leftover/old dry feed to the older calves and provide fresh dry feed to the young calves. If we were to stop the liquid nutrients before the rumen is completely developed the calves will not grow and may even lose body weight for a couple of weeks until the rumen has been developed. This is key as you want your calves to have a fully developed rumen to continue growing. Research shows that keeping calves on milk/milk replacers for 10 weeks provides better growth of the calf, and this would be recommended for all calves to achieve superior growth.

It is important to make sure that the amount of grain/TMR your calves are being fed is known. With the help of your nutritionist weigh how much grain/TMR each age group of calves is eating and ensure that it is adequate to reach their maximum growth potential. Consistency for calves is so important, consistent in amount being fed, time being fed, and quality of feeds for example.

While feed is very important to achieve adequate growth, the housing environment of the calf is just as much so. Keeping calves out of drafts and wet environments is important to maintain a healthy calf and prevent sickness. Calves should have a deep bed to be able to make a nest and stay warm. A good way to check if the bedding is dry is to do a knee test, simply kneel down for 20 seconds and if your knees are damp or cold, there needs to be more fresh bedding added. In group housing environments, group calves according to size will allow for optimum growth and less competition at the feed bunk. If calves can be moved through the heifer program as a group to eliminate a stressor of introducing new calves to one another, that will help to keep them performing well.

In closing keeping the calf program consistent with high quality milk/ milk replacer, good quality dry feeds and a dry, draft free environment calves will perform well.

This article was written for the Spring 2023 Dairy Eastern Dairy Grist. To read the whole Dairy Grist, click the button below.