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Milk-based calf starter promotes growth on lower-level milk programs

Amy Sova for Progressive Dairyman Published on 12 October 2017
calf group

The dairy industry has seen a large trend towards high-level milk feeding programs for calves in the past decade. This has allowed producers to realize the growth potential of young animals and improve welfare.

However, the challenge with feeding high levels of milk is encouraging sufficient solid intake to develop the calf’s rumen and reduce the post-weaning slump in growth. Those producers continuing to feed low levels of milk cite economic reasons and the goal of encouraging earlier starter intake.

However, traditional calf starters have limited digestibility in the first month of life due to lack of rumen development.

From an economic standpoint, switching from a liquid to a solid diet is beneficial as input costs are lower. Nevertheless, it may be difficult to meet calf-raising goals on the restricted milk levels needed to encourage higher solid intake.

Typically, we aim to double the calf’s birthweight by weaning and maintain a minimum 700-gram average daily gain (ADG). In our dynamic industry, we need to find innovative ways to meet our calf benchmarking goals in the most cost-effective way possible.

Introducing a more palatable and digestible calf starter pellet has the potential to overcome these barriers to growth by increasing early starter intake and nutrient digestion, thus increasing rumen development and helping the calf transition to a less expensive solid feed diet while meeting our growth targets.

Grand Valley Fortifiers ran an on-farm trial during the summer of 2016 to evaluate a milk-based pelleted calf starter feed as a supplement to a conventional milk replacer and pelleted calf grower program.

Our objective was to compare intake, growth and health parameters of dairy calves during the pre- and post-weaning periods that were fed high or low levels of milk replacer with or without the supplementation of this milk-based pellet. We enrolled four groups of 20 Holstein calves under four different treatments (Table 1).

Four treatment groups in summer feeding trial

Calves were group-housed and fed a 26 percent crude protein, 18 percent fat commercial acidified milk replacer in either 12-litre or 6-litre daily milk allowance on a robotic feeder. Of each milk level, one pen was assigned to milk-based pellets.

The milk-based pellet was fed ad libitum until the youngest calf in the pen was 28 days old, and then the group was switched to 20 percent calf grower for the remainder of the trial. The control groups were fed ad libitum 20 percent calf pellets for the entire trial.

Average daily group intake of solid feed was recorded daily as well as daily milk intake. Calves were weighed with a digital scale on day of birth and subsequently during week three, five, seven, nine and 13 to calculate ADG during these time periods. Calves were weaned by 63 days old, with a gradual reduction beginning on day 49.

The milk-based pellet is highly palatable and contains easily digested ingredients for dairy calves in the pre-ruminant stage of life. As expected, we observed higher intakes for those calves on the 6LL treatment compared to 6CON (Figure 1).

Intake (g/d)

The 6LL group consumed 57 percent more solid feed than the 6CON group from day one to 49 and 28 percent more solid feed from day one to 63. Furthermore, average daily intake in the first three weeks of life was 2.8 times higher for the 6LL compared to 6CON group (61 grams per day versus 21.6 grams per day).

Intake did not differ significantly between the 12-litre treatment groups but was significantly less than their 6-litre counterparts.

On average, the 6LL group compared to the 12-litre calves consumed 2.4 times more solid feed both from day one to 21 and day 22 to 35 (61 versus 25.5 grams per day and 298 versus 124 grams per day, respectively). It is pertinent to note the 12LL calves did not have any intake or growth advantages over the 12CON group.

We hypothesized this lack of response was due to the fact calves were only fed milk-based pellets for the first month of life and did not consume adequate solid feed during this phase. Calves on accelerated milk level programs do not usually consume adequate solid feed until the second month of life.

It would be interesting to continue feeding milk-based pellets alongside the traditional calf starter during the weaning process and collect data on feed intake to determine whether there would be an intake advantage; further research in this area is needed.

This increased intake translated to improved ADG pre-weaning and post-weaning for 6LL calves. Calves on the 6LL treatment had a 16 percent growth advantage over the 6CON calves from birth to weaning (Figure 2).

ADG (g/d)Numerically, this advantage was a 100-gram ADG improvement (730 grams ADG versus 630 grams ADG). As expected, calves on the 12-litre milk allowance had greater ADG from birth to weaning than the lower-milk-fed calves with 800 grams ADG.

Typically, we see a lag in growth during weaning as calves transition from milk to solid feed. Interestingly, calves on the 6LL treatment did not suffer a large drop in ADG during the weaning period (weeks seven to nine) and maintained over 1 kilogram ADG during this typically stressful period.

On average, growth of the 6LL calves was lower than the 12-litre calves before week seven but exceeded the 12-litre milk-fed calves during the weaning phase (Figure 2) and was maintained after weaning. During weaning, they had more than 200 grams greater ADG than all other calves.

This is promising, as it demonstrated the 6LL calves were likely better able to handle moving to a solid feed-based diet and potentially could have been fully weaned earlier than 9 weeks old.

Post-weaning growth was also greater for the 6LL calves; they maintained a 200-gram ADG growth advantage over the 12-litre milk-fed calves with 1.5 kilograms ADG from week nine to 13. All calves, with the exception of the 6CON calves, met our goals of doubling their birthweight by weaning and maintained at least 700 grams ADG during the milk phase.

In summary, our research shows calves fed a lower level of milk replacer along with a milk-based pre-starter pellet consume more solid feed and maintain higher ADG before and after weaning than calves on a conventional lower-level milk program. This novel pellet also shows promise as an economical way to get similar growth results as a high-milk-allowance program.  end mark

PHOTO: Photo by Mike Dixon.

Amy Sova
  • Amy Sova

  • Associate Dairy Nutritionist
  • Grand Valley Fortifiers
  • Email Amy Sova

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