A recent nationwide study by Merck Animal Health found that the number of producers feeding three times a day is increasing. In 2007, the National Animal Health Monitoring System found only 5.4 percent of the calf raisers were feeding three times a day. A more recent study (2010) revealed 8 percent of the calf raisers were feeding three times a day, with 14 percent doing so in the winter.
While both feeding programs have merit, management limitations matter.
Compelling evidence indicates labor cost needs to be considered when thinking about implementing a three-times-per-day feeding system. However, more efficient animals could offset the additional labor cost. Additionally, the Wisconsin study found that calves fed three times per day were more likely to complete the first lactation, potentially reducing future culling costs.
OK, now what? Well, if your management allows it, consider a three-times-per-day feeding program, especially in the winter when calves require a constant source of energy in their liquid diets to sustain maintenance and growth. Note that this concept presents the same allocation of feed, but it is just delivered three times a day. Feeding three times a day will optimize your chance of raising healthy calves that grow into productive, lactating cows.
Nonetheless, feeding three times a day results in a cost of time in the form of labor. To offset that cost, some dairy producers have introduced computerized calf feeders, which allow them to divide liquid diets into multiple smaller meals. Canadian studies have demonstrated that calves will nurse four to eight times daily. Researchers believe that calves instinctively feed more often to maximize nutrient availability. Because automatic calf feeders can produce that level of delivery, they are an option to consider.
Recently, several North Dakota dairy farms installed such systems. During a producer panel session at the last dairy convention, some of these dairy producers noted that to implement this technology successfully, computerized feeding systems require a shift in management priorities, including more frequent observations of calves and the adoption of protocols to monitor the mixing of the powder, temperature calibration and equipment sanitation to make sure they are done correctly.
One final caution: Calves are especially sensitive to the overall level of management. Research has shown repeatedly that calves are healthier when they are monitored frequently. While feeding milk to calves once daily, or investing in a technology and/or letting the computer do it, may not affect the digestibility of nutrients markedly, less monitoring can lead to increased health problems. While both feeding options may save labor, increased morbidity and mortality resulting from decreased observation may increase costs.