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New recommendations for calf feeding using automated feeders

Holger Kruse for Progressive Dairyman Published on 30 October 2018
Calf feeding using automated feeders

To successfully implement current scientific findings on metabolic programming in practice, and thus raise healthier calves with a better performance potential and higher milk yield, the more traditional dietary recommendations of feeding calves must be revised.

Traditional feeding programs pose a risk

Traditionally, feeding programs based on the principle of 3 litres per meal, with each meal including 120 to 130 grams milk replacer (CMR) per litre, were recommended.



With these programs, calves receive approximately 750 grams of CMR per day. Until 2010, this was a common recommendation throughout the dairy sector, including automatic feeders.

In addition to the low energy concentration, automatic feeders also pose another risk: calves starving due to missed milk feedings.

Since the total amount of milk is distributed among four and six visits per day, each calf receives only 120 to 150 grams of CMR per visit.

When teaching calves to use the feeder, there are always a few animals that need a few days to get used to the feeding method. They often miss one or more meals.

If a calf misses its second visit and only obtains one or two meals on the next feeding day, that means instead of the desired 750 grams per day, it often only receives half the amount of CMR.


These calves do not even intake enough nutrients to cover their own energy requirement, which makes them susceptible to illness and disease.

Thus, the supposed advantage of offering many small portions in the automatic feeder is also actually a risk factor in certain cases.

Calf feeding redefined

In view of all this, dairies need to rethink their approach to calf feeding.

1. Feeding parameters must be adjusted to the individual needs of the calf, using precise and individually adapted feeding curves.

2. Until the calf is weaned from milk, calf feeding is divided into two phases:

  • Start phase: Intensive feeding at the time of organ maturity (first 28 days of life)

  • Weaning phase: To support the calf’s development into a ruminant animal

As a measure of the calf’s nutrient and energy intake and supply in the start phase, the “metabolic factor” can be defined. It tells how much CMR or dry matter of whole milk the calf has absorbed until day 28.


The higher this figure, the higher the future performance potential and milk yield of the calf. In fact, researchers at Cornell University have found a direct correlation between calves’ daily pre-weaning weight gain and their future performance.

Under previously recommended restricted diets, calves typically gained 600 grams per day during the preweaning phase.

According to this new research however, for every 100 grams of increased weight gain, calves, on average, produced an additional 85-110 kilograms of milk in their first lactation.

For example, if a farm is able to bring calf weight gains up to 1,000 grams per day (400 g/d more than the normal 600 g/d) the farm can, on average, expect 340 kilograms to 440 kilograms (4x 85-110 kg) more milk production in the first lactation.

Implementing findings into programming of computerized automatic feeders

As a first step, every farmer should decide how intensively he or she wants to feed and raise their calves. Intensive ad libitum feeding during the first 2-3 weeks is a good possibility but it may not be the right path for everyone.

With this in mind, farmers can adopt one of two different feeding strategies: The economy feeding curve or the metabolic feeding curve.

Economy feeding curve

The standard curve of automatic feeders should allow a daily intake of 1,000 grams CMR in the first four weeks. This corresponds to recommendations for moderate rearing with average growth of about 400-500 grams per day.

This can be achieved by starting with an initial milk quantity of 6 to 7 litres per day. If this amount is used, producers should increase the CMR concentration to 145 grams per litre in the start phase before reducing to 135 grams prior to the actual weaning phase.

After 35 days, calves should be weaned in small amounts of about 200 millilitres per day until day 70 when they are fully off milk.

With this feeding curve, each calf would consume a total of approximately 50 kilograms CMR. The key here is that more than 50 percent of the energy (27 kg CMR = metabolic factor) has been dispensed and consumed within the 28-day start phase.

It is essential that the quantity per visit should be set to 2 litres right from the start.

With this method, calves “in training” that miss their second meal at half-day will still intake about 600 grams of energy (CMR) per day, which at least covers the energy requirements of the calf.

This will prevent calves from starving during the teaching phase, as mentioned above.

Metabolic feeding curve

Alternatively, farmers who want significantly better calf performance and higher milk yield can choose a “metabolic feeding curve.”

This feeding curve forgoes a gradually increasing feeding phase and instead feeds 8-10 litres of milk per day during the start phase.

In this case, the farmer accepts that calves may not retrieve and consume the entire amount at the beginning. The concentration starts with 175 grams CMR/l.

The daily intake of CMR in the first start phase is 1,400 grams and higher. This enables calves to achieve a daily weight gain of 1,000 grams and more.

With this high supply, calves convert additional CMR quantities into body mass at the ratio of 1 kilograms CMR : 1 kilograms bodyweight.

The metabolic factor in the 28-day start phase is approximately 38 kilograms CMR. In feeding curves recommended in the past, this quantity of milk powder was not even fed until the end of the rearing period, at 10 weeks.

As with the economy curve, the metabolic feeding curve also integrates an early reduction of CMR concentration to prepare for the actual weaning of calves.

This ensures that calves are prepared early on for the intake of concentrate feed. This process marks the start of the weaning phase.

The amount of energy supplied is slowly reduced, which motivates calves to satisfy their hunger pangs by consuming dry feed.

In addition, calves still continue to receive a good quantity of milk for a certain period of time, which can suppress the tendency towards mutual cross suckling.

The metabolic feeding curve is ideal for weaning calves previously fed a higher plane of nutrition (e.g. ad libitum) in individual pens or hutches.

It allows producers to wean calves from a very high energy intake without the risk of growth checks. However, calves should be introduced to the automatic feeder not later than in the third week, so the weaning process can slowly be introduced.

When using the metabolic feeding curve, the farmer can consider shortening the milk phase by two weeks, down to eight weeks of life.

When weaning at eight weeks, the theoretical CMR consumption is approximately 56 kilograms; a 10-week milk feeding phase would result in consumption of more than 70 kilograms, depending on the actual quantity of milk the calf intakes.  end mark

PHOTO: Calves in feed barn. Photo courtesy of Holm & Laue.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Holger Kruse
  • Holger Kruse

  • Head of Sales and Marketing
  • Holm & Laue

Prerequisites for Intensive Feeding Programs

To succeed with such programs, there are three important prerequisites:

  1. High-quality, highly digestible milk replacer or whole milk must be used. Lower-quality MRs or milk may cause diet-related diarrhea.

  2. The feeding technology must be capable of feeding calves on an individual basis, since the adjustments in the quantity and concentration can only be implemented if each portion is freshly prepared for each calf.

  3. The farm manager and his or her employees must have a good eye for the calves. Despite better health, the calves may occasionally have diarrhea, which is difficult to distinguish from the thin, liquid excrement caused by a high consumption of milk. Management systems can be useful in this regard, since they precisely analyze the visits and feeding behaviour of the calves and clearly show the farm manager on a PC, tablet or mobile phone which calves need special attention.