The idea for a calf feeding study came to Don Sockett during conversations he had with co-workers, who also happened to be moms, at the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. In fact, you might say he had one of those “Mother knows best” moments.

“My passion is dairy calves, and I spend a lot of my time dealing with health issues related to dairy calves,” says Sockett, a veterinary microbiologist at the diagnostic lab in Madison, Wis. “At work I always ask people what they think.”

And boy did he get an earful during conversations about feeding calves twice a day. In fact, the moms were quick to chastise him with the comment, “Every mother knows a baby needs to be fed more than twice a day.”

Those moms may have been on to something. New research shows that when calves on a higher plane of nutrition were fed three times a day instead of two, they had a much better chance of entering lactation than calves fed twice a day. Here’s a closer look at what the research found.

A powerful response

During the study, all the calves were fed the same amount of a 28-percent protein, 20-percent fat milk replacer daily. The only difference was the 3X calves’ portion was split into three meals, with the extra feeding taking place at 2:30 in the afternoon. Otherwise, both groups were fed at 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. It’s important to note that all the calves received the same amount (700 grams) of a commercially available colostrum replacement product within four hours of birth. The product supplied 150 grams of immunoglobulin G and there was no difference between the two groups for failure of passive transfer.

Study results show the additional milk replacer feeding yielded some pretty powerful results — 97.1 percent (or 34 out of 35 calves) went on to become lactating animals in the herd.

“That’s unheard of in the Holstein industry, absolutely unheard of,” Sockett says. “The national average is about 80 percent.”

And that’s exactly how the calves fed twice daily performed. Eighty percent, or 28 out of 35 of the calves, entered the milking herd. That means, for every six calves fed three times a day, one additional heifer entered lactation.

Make mine a triple“When you look at the reasons why calves in the twice-a-day feeding didn’t make it as mothers lactating in the herd, it wasn’t any one particular thing,” Sockett says.

Mostly, it was common reasons — like death prior to weaning, the heifer didn’t get bred or she aborted — that expedited her departure from the herd.

The calves fed three times per day also calved 16 days earlier and averaged 1,136 pounds more milk during their first lactation. They also had better starter intake, growth and feed efficiency during the pre-weaning phase — what you would expect of calves fed to a higher plane of nutrition. (Please see “Study results at a glance” below.)

If 3X is good, is 4X better?

If you don’t use an automatic calf feeder to deliver milk replacer, offering more than three hand-fed meals is probably not worth it.

“Three (meals) is probably going to give you the best response for your dollar, in terms of the additional labor,” says Tom Earleywine, director of nutritional services at Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products Company.

Sockett agrees, adding that four hand feedings per day may benefit calves, but you probably won’t get the “wow” factor that you see when feeding frequency increases from two to three meals per day.

“Obviously this work needs to be repeated to make sure it’s a repeatable finding,” Sockett adds.

However, the evidence so far presents a strong case for feeding calves multiple meals.

And many already are. It’s estimated that roughly 8 percent to 14 percent of dairy farms feed calves three times a day, and that’s not just in winter, Earleywine says.

Further study results might prompt more calf feeders to adopt a three-a-day approach. If it helps more animals become productive members of the herd, why not?

STUDY RESULTS AT A GLANCE

This table provides a snapshot of the performance of calves fed a 28:20 milk replacer three times a day vs. twice a day.

Make mine a triple

BUT I’LL MISS JAY LENO

A 3X calf feeding program does not require you to miss your favorite late-night television program.

“When you talk about feeding (calves) three times a day, everybody thinks of going outside and having to do a midnight feeding,” says Don Sockett, veterinary microbiologist at the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Madison, Wis. “That wasn’t done in this study.”

The study Sockett is referring to looked at the impact of feeding calves a 28:20 milk replacer three times a day instead of two. Implementing such a strategy is relatively straight-forward, and there doesn’t need to be an eighthour split between feedings.

“All the calves were fed at 8:00 in the morning and at 9 o’clock at night, and the calves that were fed three times a day got a meal at 2:30 in the afternoon,” Sockett says.

Calves were fed this way for the first six weeks of the study, and then from week six to week seven, or 43 to 49 days of age, they were all fed once a day in preparation for weaning.

The key to success, Sockett says, is getting the people who feed the calves on board.

“If there’s a will to do it, the calf feeder will figure out a way to do it,” he says.

To find out how they made it work in this particular study, go to dairyherd.com and type “Tips for feeding calves 3X” into the “Search” box.