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Good nutrition early in life is usually essential for leading a healthy adult life.  Dairy calves are no different.  One of the most important nutritional times in their lives actually occurs before birth.  The last sixty days of the cow’s pregnancy is when the calf does the majority of its growing and developing in utero.  During this time, it is very important that the cow is getting adequate feed and nutrition for the growing calf.  Being on a good diet at this time also increases the quality of the colostrum the cow produces after calving. 

The colostrum is extremely important for a newborn calf because when they are born, their immune system isn’t fully functional yet.  The colostrum provides antibodies to the calf that will supplement the immune system until it is fully developed.  The colostrum is generally given in the first twelve hours of life over at least two meals.  It is recommended that at least two quarts are given to each calf during this time.

The rumen and digestion system of a calf is not fully developed until about two months of age so it still needs a liquid milk diet.  Dairy calves differ in the fact that they do not stay with the cow after birth.  The cow goes to continue being milked and the calf is usually put into a hut.  Without the cow as a source of milk, the calf must be supplemented with other milk or milk replacer.  Generally, a calf is given a minimum of two meals a day.  If it is possible, it is recommended that calves be given three meals a day, as it has been shown to be beneficial to their growth over time.

Milk replacer is generally a powder that contains everything a cow’s milk would, but in a manageable form for a farmer to feed to calves.  This powder usually gets mixed in a 1:1 ratio of pounds of powder to gallons of water.  Depending on the type and brand of milk replacer a farmer uses, this ratio can fluctuate.  A farmer should always follow individual instructions of a milk replacer or the recommendation of a veterinarian.  Generally, milk replacer will contain anywhere between 10-25% of fat.  If it is a colder climate or colder time of the year, it is recommended that a milk replacer include at least 20% fat.  The amount of milk replacer given to a calf should not exceed 8% of its body weight.  Some farmers will bottle feed calves or give them buckets to drink the milk replacer out of.  Either method is fine, but if possible, it is better to bottle feed a calf as the physical act of them lifting their head helps close off the entrance to their rumen so no milk will get in and be fermented.  Again, if a farmer has concern about a calf’s growth or herd growth, they should consult with a veterinarian. Calves should also always be given access to fresh, clean water even when they are still on milk replacer.

Even though as previously mentioned, calves do not have a fully developed gastrointestinal system at birth, it is still a good idea to start introducing some type of dry food at about a week old. Often times, farmers use what is called calf starter to start getting the calf interested in dry food.  The starter usually contains pellets or corn and is usually mixed with molasses so that it is more appetizing to the calf.  The calf will most likely not eat the starter right away but it should still be offered daily and eventually it will eat it.  Along with the calf starter, the farmer should give small quantities of alfalfa daily as these together will benefit the development of the calf’s rumen. 

All of these introductions of dry food and rumen development is to prepare the calf for weaning.  This is when the calf will be taken off the milk replacer and put on a full dry feed and water diet. Each calf may respond differently, but this process usually occurs at about 6-8 weeks of age.  The calf should be eating about four pounds of calf starter a day along with the hay and usual milk replacer. Not only will the calf’s diet change, but so will its housing.  Weaning is also the time that calves are taken from individual hutches and put into larger group pens with other calves of the same age and development.

Sources:

  1. http://www.holsteinfoundation.org/pdf_doc/workbooks/DairyCattleNutrition.pdf
  2. "Calves (Dairy Cattle Nutrition)." Dairy Cattle Nutrition (Penn State Extension). N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2017.                          

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