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How consistent is your calf feeding program?

Bob James Published on 20 November 2012

Consistent nutrient content delivered at the desired temperature and appropriate time leads to better performance in preweaned calves.

Field studies of calf feeding systems using waste milk on dairies and calf ranches in the U.S. found that fat content varied from 1.1 percent to more than 4.5 percent, though protein content was less variable.

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Reasons for such wide variation include the number of fresh cows and the inclusion of considerable quantities of flush water in the waste milk stream.

Additionally, waste milk has a high concentration of bacteria with unknown effects on calf growth and health. Milk replacers purchased from a reputable manufacturer ensure that nutrient content of the powder is as stated on the feed tag.

However, consider where mistakes can occur when mixing the milk replacer. In most cases the powder is measured using a cup included in the bag.

There’s usually a line slightly below the top of the cup indicating the desired measure of powder to be added to a given volume of water.

In the haste to feed calves (it’s usually the last chore in the evening or the last one before breakfast in the morning), calf feeders frequently disregard the mark and add significantly more or less powder.

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Another source of variation is the amount of water used to mix the powder. Mixing containers found on dairies and calf ranches range from five-gallon buckets to much larger mixing tanks where water volume is often crudely measured.

Milk replacer mixing was monitored without telling the feeders the purpose. Total solid levels varied from 9 to 15 percent.

The influence on calf growth and health was difficult to measure; however, available energy and protein were either in excess or insufficient to even meet maintenance requirements.

The impact of variation of the liquid diet on calf performance has been studied by Mark Hill and co-workers at Akey Nutrition in Ohio.

They found that calves fed a liquid diet delivering a consistent level of nutrients per day had greater daily gain, starter intake and feed efficiency than calves fed an inconsistent liquid, whether it was milk or milk replacer.

Another cause of inconsistency is the temperature of the liquid diet fed to calves. Due to their young age and small size, calves are very susceptible to cold stress.

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Feeding liquid diets at less than 37ºC increases maintenance requirements for energy and reduces nutrients available for growth.

Another concern with low temperature is the impact on proper mixing of the powder in the water. In such cases, nutrient levels of the liquid can vary appreciably from calf to calf.

Feeding liquids too hot (more than 43ºC) may discourage intake, though it’s not unusual to mix milk replacers or heat milk to higher temperatures during the winter so that it won’t be too cool by the time calves are fed.

Consistency can be improved by following some simple protocols.

1. Use scales to weigh the water and powder. Milk replacers should be mixed to 12.5 to 15 percent solids, which means adding .5 kgs of MR powder to 4 kgs of water (12.5 percent) or .7 kgs of powder in 3.8 kgs of water.

2. Use a battery-operated thermometer to measure temperature of the liquid. During the winter one might use water at 46 to 48ºC to mix the replacer and allow it to cool to 43 to 40ºC prior to feeding.

When feeding calves using buckets, periodically check the temperature to make sure it hasn’t gotten too cold. If this happens, consider mixing smaller batches of milk replacer more frequently.

In addition to providing a more consistent diet for calves, using scales to weigh powder and water can reduce overfeeding or wasting expensive MR powder.  PD

—Excerpts from Virginia Cooperative Extension Dairy Pipeline newsletter, April 2012

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