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Calves can safely consume more milk than thought

Feeding young calves more milk can cut down on antibiotic use and have other benefits

Feeding dairy calves more milk early in life might not be a cheap proposition in the short term, but with a longer view the benefits are clear.

It’s also a safe practice, according to one dairy researcher who spoke at the recent annual general meeting of the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba.

Michael Steele

Michael Steele
photo: Shannon VanRaes

“Based on the research data we have accumulated over the last two years, it’s acceptable to feed up to eight litres — we don’t know if it’s acceptable to feed more than eight litres — but that is still two very large meals of four litres a day,” said Michael Steel, a researcher at the University of Alberta.

Speaking to farmers in Winnipeg at the recent Dairy Farmers of Manitoba annual meeting, he noted research has shown — based on insulin sensitivity results — that high feeding levels prior to weaning don’t result in negative outcomes. For years it has been assumed that large meals could result in overflow into the rumen, but Steele said slower abomasal emptying is triggered by the increased consumption to self-regulate the calf’s digestion.

While there is anecdotal evidence that calves can be fed as much as 12 litres of milk a day over three feedings, Steele said that scientific studies have yet to back up that type of recommendation.

However, studies have shown that the lifetime milk production of cows fed more in the first weeks of life is higher than those that were fed less. Calves fed more milk also grew faster and were generally healthier, requiring fewer interventions such as antibiotics than those that consumed less milk.

“There are a lot of good studies showing that a gain in early life is correlated to lifetime production,” he said. “And that is a benefit in the long term.”

But in practice, Steele said that most producers feed calves less than eight litres of milk a day, partially because they are unaware of the benefits of feeding more, but also because of the cost associated with the practice.

“If you are over quota it’s good, but if you’re under quota it’s not very economical to feed large quantities in the short term,” he said. “If you just purely look at the short-term growth, it doesn’t make any sense to feed more milk, so what you are doing this for is to improve overall health and production lifetime.”

Producers that adopt this type of feeding regimen should also be aware it will result in looser stool, which should not be mistaken for diarrhea in young calves.

Henry Holtman, who farms near Rosser, said he is feeding his calves 10 litres of milk and that it’s important that his staff understand what the manure from these calves will look like.

“I feed twice a day and we’re getting them up to 10 litres, you know five and five or whatever, but the challenge is that my staff look at the stool and say she has diarrhea, because it’s loose stool,” Holtman said. “So that’s our challenge, is to try and train people not to treat when it’s loose manure and not diarrhea.”

Steele suggests taking staff to check out farms where the practice is already in use if you are just introducing it to your own operation.

“I think the only way to really crack that is to show them other scenarios and show them the growth rate, what it looks like,” he said, adding that solid stool isn’t a good sign during the first three weeks of a calf’s life, no matter what they are being fed.

“What that means is dehydration and that’s not good,” he said.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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