Editor’s note: Dairy Calf and Heifer Association member Roy Williams provided this information on accelerated milk feeding programs.

“In the past several years, there has been much discussion about accelerated milk feeding programs. In a "conventional" calf feeding program, the calf is fed 1 gallon of milk or milk replacer per day. In the accelerated program, the calf is typically fed at least 1.5 gallons per day and usually 2 gallons per day. In many cases, a "28/20" milk replacer is fed, or milk that has been supplemented for increased solids. 

“The arguments in favor of this type of feeding program are typically that the heifer will have higher milk production in at least the first lactation, and there have been some instances where subsequent lactations have also been more productive. This author identified 14 papers published as long ago as 1994 that suggested that accelerated feeding of milk resulted in improved production.

“However, there have been some notable exceptions, including a British study with 153 calves and a New Zealand study that covered 689 calves. The New Zealand study found that heifers fed an increased ration after weaning produced better than conventionally fed heifers, but accelerated feeding of milk did not affect production. Recently, a study done at the University of Minnesota resulted in the average age of first calving being 27 days less for enhanced-feeding program heifers as compared to conventionally fed heifers, but there was no improvement in performance on the first lactation.

“T.L. Ollivett at Cornell recently reported that enhanced feeding program calves better tolerated, and recovered more quickly from, an experimental challenge of Cryptosporidium than did conventionally fed calves. However, another study found that there was reduced T-cell (lymphocyte) production in calves on an accelerated feeding program as compared to calves on a conventional feeding program, thus indicating that the immune system may be adversely affected by accelerated feeding.

“This author has noted informally that very small Jersey calves that were fed the same 1-gallon-per-day ration as large-breed calves were remarkably healthy compared to the large-breed calves, as measured by treatments and mortality. (In this scenario, the Jersey calves were effectively on an accelerated feeding program, due to their much lower body weight.)

“It should be noted that none of the studies that report improved milk production compared the health records for both the conventionally-fed and accelerated-fed heifers.

“At the present time there is no clear set of reasons why so many observers have seen an improved first-lactation production from accelerated feeding program heifers when compared to conventionally fed heifers. There is some data that suggests that there is some unique development process of the udder that is especially sensitive to nutritional levels prior 4 weeks of age, but this has not been verified.

“There is agreement that the conventional 2 bottles a day feeding program provides a large calf with barely enough energy (even in a warm environment) to maintain its body weight, with very little protein or energy left over for immunological challenges or growth. In contrast to conventional feeding, calves allowed free choice milk have been observed to drink as much as 15 quarts (3.75 gallons) per day.

“We might also note that nursing beef calves, on good clean pasture, will typically gain 3 pounds a day or more, and experience about a 2 percent death loss through 205 days, and estimates have been made that these calves are consuming around 30 pounds (3.5 gallons) of milk per day.

“There has been no published research that reports on dairy heifers that were fed more than 2 gallons per day; most of the literature focuses on feeding a "28/20" milk replacer at rates somewhat above the conventional 1 gallon per day.

“There are two approaches to feeding additional milk: (a) feed 1 bottle (.5 gallon) more than two times a day, or (b) feed more than .5 gallon at each feeding, or (c) some combination of these approaches. For example, one program this author has seen in operation is the feeding of 3 quarts, 3 times a day. Automatic feeders can be programmed for any amount and frequency limits desired.

“At this time, it appears that an accelerated feeding program may improve the first lactation performance of the heifer, and may decrease the number of treatments (for illness). Accelerated feeding may decrease the number of deaths among pre-weaned heifers, and may lead to lower cull rates due to chronic illness and poor performance, but more study is needed. Producers who may be interested in trying an accelerated milk feeding program should contact their milk-replacer supplier, local extension agent or other recognized calf expert for further guidance.”

Source: Dairy Calf and Heifer Association