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CALF FEEDING FREQUENCY: The more often the merrier?

There are so many questions when it comes to managing a dairy farm and achieving the ultimate goal of producing a healthy milk product in a profitable and sustainable way.

Not About How Much Feed but How Much Milk

You might think that the size of the calf doesn’t really matter because, until they’re in the milking line, they are in limbo.  Right? Wrong! Everything that impacts the health and growth of the dairy calf will, ultimately, have a significant impact on whether or not she reaches her full potential as a dairy cow

And, furthermore, the point is not about how much feed you get into them … but rather it’s about how the nutrition the calf receives can impact the speed with which they get to breeding maturity.

Disadvantages of 2X Milking

When calves are only fed twice a day, the abomasum sits empty too long.  This causes low pH level to result, and it might lead to ulcerations.

What Are You Willing to Give Up for Convenience?

With the 24/7 nature of dairy managing, we are always looking for ways to save time.  However saving time with calf feeding could prove to be costly, in the end.  What are you willing to give up?  Weaning age?  Weaning weight? Age at first calving? Total lifetime production?

By changing the frequency of feeding – up OR down – be clear about how that changes the expected outcome of your calf program. You may prefer the logistics of 2X for human scheduling, but the goal should be about the calves growing as fast and efficiently as they can.

There are several ways to fit in the three feedings. Those who work with this system agree that once there is a will to make it work, the best method can be figured out.

Not ALL Dairy Calves are Created Equal

Sometimes a new calf needs extra attention.  However, even after receiving that, there are a few who still don’t do well.  It’s a challenge to the animal caregiver to make sure that every animal gets the best opportunity.  Having said that, there has to be the realization that a sick calf will carry the stresses and delays of that slow start with her right into the milking line.

Calf Raising Consultants

Having recognized the importance of an excellent start to a productive milking life, dairy managers would do well to get their questions answered by consulting with calf raising specialists.  Together you can determine the desired outcomes and work out the protocols that will deliver them.  Everyone connected with the calf raising program needs to accept responsibility and be accountable for improving the program. Those are the most important first steps from the human side of the equation.

Consider Where Frequency Research is Coming From

When dairy managers consider the reported results of dairy research projects, it is crucial that they receive the information using the lens of the goals they are trying to achieve.  In the case of calf feeding frequency, there has to be a choice between the comfort and convenience of the calf feeding crew and the goals that the calf program is targeting.

Years of tradition says that 2X feeding works and there are “In summary, calves on a conventional milk replacer program performed similarly whether provided their daily allotment of milk in 1, 2 or 3 feedings per day.  When fed on a slightly higher plane of nutrient, differences in feeding frequency showed no effect on calf performance.”  If you’re looking for support of 2x feeding, this is the research you will quote.  However, it is important to note the reference to plane of nutrition.

Consider Advice from People Who Have “Been There Done That!”

Recent headlines that caught my eye:

  • Three-times-a-day calf feeding gaining popularity.”
    In the not-to-distant past, feeding dairy calves three times per day was relatively unheard of. However, this 3x frequency is rapidly becoming the popular choice.
  • “Study finds 1 in 7 calf raisers feeds 3x some of the year.”
    There are always discerning managers, and there are some who have always fed 3x.  They point to lower levels of sickness and death and feel that those results far outweigh concerns with extra labor and expense.
  • “There are several advantages to feeding milk replacer 3x.”
    In 2011 Don Sockett DVM, Ph.D. epidemiologist/microbiologist for the University of Wisconsin reports his experience with 3X feeding frequency. “ When compared, calves fed a milk replacer three times daily, versus a control group fed the same milk replacer twice daily, were more feed efficient and showed improved average daily gain. Calves fed three times daily grew taller and longer, with added pounds of lean growth.  This growth is optimal for dairy calves to prepare them for desirable breeding weights and freshening at a younger age, leading to greater lifetime performance.” Researchers also noted that these calves were noticeably friskier than calves fed twice a day.  In further discussion of this topic several veterinarians and calf managers frequently report vastly improved results, “Since 3x feeding we now double our weights in less than 60 days and cut treatments for scours in less than half of what they had been.” It is important to target levels of nutrition and the corresponding feeding frequency, which will see dairy heifers reach their performance potential in their first lactation.

The 3X Effect on Profit Potential

The ultimate measure of success of your calf feeding program happens when calves enter the lactating herd.  The previously noted Wisconsin researcher Don (Sockett et al) reports that”97.1 percent (34 of 35) of the claves in the three times a day feeding group entered the milking string. In comparison, 80.0 percent (28 of 35) of calves fed two times per day entered the milking herd. This means for every six calves fed three times a day, one additional heifer entered lactation. Calves fed three times per day also averaged 1,136 pounds more of milk and calved 16 days earlier. This can also translate to improved herd longevity and increased the number of replacement heifers that successfully make it to the milking line.

3X Means Reaching Full Calf Potential

If your goal is to increase first lactation and lifetime production levels in your dairy calves, you must consider these benefits delivered by 3X calf feeding.

  • Decreased calf mortality rate
  • Improved feed efficiency
  • Healthy rumen development
  • Breeding weights reached earlier
  • Calved two weeks earlier than 2X peers

At the Very Least, Consider 3X to Relieve Winter Stress

During winter, calves are exposed to low-temperature extremes and windy and wet weather. These variables can double their daily calorie needs and, if not met, could result in sickness and greater risk of death. By consuming smaller volumes more frequently, calves can better fend off diarrhea or digestive disturbances at any time of year.

Automated Feeders Allow Ultimate Timing Opportunity

Dairies don’t leave calves with their mothers because of the potential for increased disease risk.  Although it’s not likely possible in standard calf raising situations, trying to replicate, the natural nursing frequency of 4 to 8 times per day could be considered a goal. It does become possible with automated feeders. Not only does this rapidly evolving technology work well for calf health but it further aids in reducing the labor costs associated with increased feeding frequency

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Not only is 3X feeding closer to nature’s way, it also delivers benefits for both calves and dairy managers and that’s a promise every dairy wants to have and to hold from calving day to milking day!



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