There are many myths that surround the feeding of small calves. People believe that Jerseys aren’t very thrifty and that they die easily, says Bob James, dairy scientist at Virginia Tech. Often, people think they shouldn’t overfeed Jerseys, especially during the first two weeks when they are small.
The reality is that Jersey calves require more nutrients per pound of body weight because they are small. A Jersey loses body heat more quickly due to a larger proportional surface area than a larger breed of calf. This is true in humans, too, says James. A small person will get cold faster, and therefore has a higher maintenance requirement per unit of body weight than a larger person. “You need to feed small calves more energy to thrive,” explains James.
It’s a misnomer, he says, that you want only lean gain in calves. Once again, James points to humans. “Have you ever seen a skinny baby? Babies need some fat,” he says. This, he says, is particularly a problem with Jerseys. Babies and young animals are especially prone to disease and to fickle appetites. James explains when a calf gets sick its intake is reduced and energy requirements increase. If a Jersey calf has a low body fat reserve and gets sick, you will see a rapid depression and death if it is not treated quickly.
Calves that are limit fed a gallon of whole milk or 20:20 milk replacer will have body fat reserves of less than 2 percent to 3 percent by 3 to 4 weeks of age. Calves fed more liberally will have 8 percent to 10 percent body fat, notes James.
According to Virginia Tech research Jerseys have 21 to 39 percent higher maintenance requirements per unit of body weight than is estimated by the National Research Council.
There are benefits to feeding Jersey calves more. They include better calf growth, better immune development, less treatment and lower mortality. There is also some evidence to suggest better mammary development and possibly more milk during the first lactation, says James.
To be successful at raising small calves, James recommends that you feed colostrum early and plenty, use a warming box when temperatures are below thermoneutral zone (less than 59 degrees F), use calf blankets, deep bed with straw and make sure to feed 1.5 pounds of dry matter per day, which is the equivalent of 1.5 gallons of whole milk or 28:25 milk replacer per day.