Dairy cattle exhibit characteristic feeding behavior patterns that may be influenced by early experiences. The objective of this study was to determine how early exposure to different feed types affects diet selection behavior of dairy calves once fed a mixed ration after weaning off milk.
Eight Holstein bull calves were randomly assigned at birth to a feed exposure treatment: concentrate or grass/alfalfa hay, offered ad libitum. All calves were offered 8L/d of milk replacer [1.2kg of dry matter (DM)] from birth, which was incrementally reduced after 4 weeks to enable weaning by the end of week 7. After milk weaning, all calves were fed a mixed ration containing (on a DM basis) 60 percent concentrate and 40 percent grass/alfalfa hay for 9 weeks. Intake was recorded daily, and calves were weighed 3 times/week. Samples of fresh feed and orts were taken in week 8, 12 and 16 for particle size analysis. The separator had three 3 screens (19, 8, and 1.18 mm) producing long, medium, short, and fine particle fractions. Sorting of each fraction was calculated as actual intake as a percentage of predicted intake. Calves exposed to concentrate tended to have greater DM intake than calves exposed to hay both before (0.49 vs. 0.16kg/d) and after weaning off milk (3.3 vs. 2.6kg/d). Weights were similar during the milk-feeding stage, but calves exposed to concentrate had greater weights overall in the postweaning stage (129.8 vs. 112.6kg).
Initially after weaning, calves sorted for familiar feed; calves previously exposed to concentrate sorted for short particles (126.4 percent), which were primarily concentrate, whereas calves previously exposed to hay did not (94.2 percent). Calves previously exposed to hay tended to sort for long particles (113.4 percent), which were solely hay, whereas calves previously exposed to concentrate sorted against them (56.4 percent). The sorting observed for short particles was associated with consuming a diet with a greater concentration of protein, nonfiber carbohydrates, and metabolizable energy, whereas sorting for long particles was associated with consuming a diet with a greater concentration of neutral detergent fiber.
After four weeks of exposure to the mixed ration, sorting was similar between treatments, with calves in both treatment groups sorting for short (117.4 and 120.5 percent) and against long (62.4 and 54.4 percent) particles, and consuming a diet with a similar concentration of nutrients and energy. These results indicate that feed familiarity affected initial diet selection postweaning, but may not have a lasting effect, with all calves developing similar feed-sorting patterns.