“A way of reducing high mortality rates in young dairy calves is to get them to ingest more nutrients early to support growth and immune function,” Tom Earleywine, director of nutritional services at Land O'Lakes Animal Milk Products, told feednavigator.
Historically, in the US, young dairy calves have been fed twice a day, often after the morning milking and before the evening one. But now, eight years of in-house research in tandem with external trials show several advantages to feeding milk or milk replacers three times daily, said the animal nutrition specialist.
“Calves fed at more frequent intervals, more like the dam would provide, get a nice balance of nutrition throughout the day. Trials have demonstrated that the additional feed boosts calf starter intake, a critical factor in early, healthy rumen development.
Studies also show that calves managed aggressively for growth will produce more milk as two-year-olds and have better lifetime performance than those fed a lower plane of nutrition pre-weaning,” said Earleywine.
And if US calf producers are already feeding a high plane of nutrition – typically 2.5 pounds of milk dry matter – they don’t have to feed more milk replacer to get these gains, he continued.
“They simply distribute the amount of milk replacer they normally feed over three feedings rather than two,” said Earleywine.
Frequent observation of calves
Another benefit from feeding three times a day, he said, is that it allows for more frequent observation of the animals, which really helps with young calves as producers can see signs of illness earlier from looking at the calf's speed of feeding or just at the appearance of the animal.
“Feeding twice a day can often mean the calf goes 15 hours or so without nutrition, and so it is left during the night - normally the coldest part of the 24 hour period - with an empty stomach and that is when illness can take hold," said the dairy nutritionist.
One disease issue that can crop up because of feeding calves only twice a day is abomasal ulcers and bloat, continued Earleywine. “Those animals are only getting two slugs of nutrition a day and, so, they go a long time with a low pH in their abomasal until the next feed, normally around 12 hours later, when all of a sudden, the pH level goes way up again, leaving the calves at high risk of ulcers and bloat.
Feeding more frequently minimizes those swings in pH levels somewhat, and that factor also protects the calf gut from the bacteria that are able to thrive in a high pH environment," he said.
Optimal feeding age
The most optimal stage to feed calves more frequently is at the youngest age, he said. “If your labor situation doesn’t allow you to feed all your calves three times a day, then your youngest calves are probably the most critical. They tend to drink smaller amounts anyway when they are newborn, so if you can boost the nutrients they ingest at that stage, it will really help build their own immune response," said Earleywine.
The costs associated with an extra feeding per day, he said, may be offset by the resulting reduced treatment and labor costs normally associated with sick calves. "And automatic calf feeders can also help calf producers in this regard," he said.
Earleywine cites data from the US National Animal Health Monitoring System showing a very slow shift by calf producers towards feeding three times a day - in 2007 only 5.3% of the sector were feeding this way, in 2008 that had jumped ever so slightly to 6.7%, while in 2010, 14% of calf producers said they had implemented such a system. “In 2012, 25 to 30% of them said they were considering it,” he added.
New protein blends
But US calf producers, said Earleywine, have additional cost concerns as the industry has seen a notable hike in milk replacer prices over the past 12 months due to the growing use of whey proteins – traditionally, the primary source for protein in calf milk replacers and pasteurized milk balancers – in food, nutrition and beverage products.
“Due to the sustained increase in cost of whey proteins, we have made it a research priority to develop calf milk replacers and milk balancers that can save on investment costs without sacrificing calf performance,” he said.
Previous challenges with non-dairy proteins in milk replacers were caused by ingredients that research has shown cannot be fed at high levels, continued Earleywine.
“We have come up with products that are based on a blend of highly-digestible proteins similar to that found in baby formula,” said the Land O’Lakes cattle expert.
The new Land O’Lakes blends, he said, consist mainly of milk proteins along with soy isolate and a patented ingredient, hydrolyzed soy protein modified. They are being launched next week.