Four Calf Tips for Lifelong Healthy Eating

( Maureen Hanson )

Whether you’re raising human babies, puppies or calves, a wide body of research has shown that the habits and behaviors they develop early in life may potentially carry through to adulthood.

For dairy calves, the way they are fed and managed can have lasting effects on their lifelong eating habits and related growth, health and productivity. University of Guelph animal behavior and welfare researcher Dr. Trevor DeVries has studied and researched calf feeding behavior in great depth, and recently shared his findings with the audience of the 2019 Smart Calf Rearing Conference, organized and hosted by the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. 

DeVries shared the following advice on four aspects of calf feeding and management that can have positive lifelong implications for these dairy animals:

  1. Provide adequate milk – DeVries cited research showing that providing greater quantities of milk than the traditional quantity (10% of body weight) results in calves that experience less stress; higher immune function; improved efficiency of feed conversion; earlier age at first breeding; and improved milk production. What’s more, in DeVries’ research calves with ad libitum milk availability were less likely to indulge in “slug feeding” when solid feed was delivered.  DeVries recognized this as an important, lifelong feeding habit, promoting consistent versus intermittent feeding as adult dairy cows.

 

  1. Feed starter and forage strategically – DeVries stated young calves need both starter grain concentrate and forage. “Concentrate contributes to production of volatile fatty acids important for promoting rumen papillae growth, while forage promotes rumen wall muscle development and volume,” he said, adding that feeding forage early in life may promote greater solid feed consumption before and after weaning. He advised that providing hay as coarse, physically effective fiber (3-4 cm. length) improved gain-to-feed ratio; feed intake post-weaning; and total tract nutrient digestibility post-weaning, compared to a finer (2mm length) fiber source. Finally, he advised that feeding dry feeds as a TMR both before and after weaning, should help promote consistent, greater nutrient and intake.

 

  1. Group house calves when possible – In research by DeVries and others it has been shown that calves reared in pairs, as opposed to those reared individually, consumed more concentrate feed prior to and during weaning, and had more consistent weight gain over the weaning period. After weaning, they also consumed feed more readily, ate more frequently, and were more willing to try new feedstuffs. 

 

  1. Limit competitive feeding – Just like adult cows, calves prefer not to compete for food. They also do not perform as well when they have to, making feeding space and milk availability important. DeVries shared research showing that calves that had to compete for teat access (1 teat per 2 calves) and solid feed access (1 bucket per 2 calves) consumed less dry solid feed compared to those who did not have to compete (1:1 calf-to-teat/bucket ratio). After weaning, the calves that had to compete continued less-healthy eating patterns. They were more aggressive in displacing their herd mates at the bunk; ate fewer synchronized meals with their herd mates; and exhibited greater “slug-type” feeding behavior by eating fewer and larger meals. 

“We’ve learned that calf feeding behavior and management can have both immediate and long-term consequences for these dairy animals,” said DeVries. “The more we learn, the more we need to adjust our husbandry practices to best serve these animals.” 

 
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