Calf Feeding Rates

by Brian Wesemann
Business Development Manager - Dairy Products

Why Do We Feed Calves Like This?

Have you or any of your customers asked this question?  Perhaps it is time to rethink your answer.  Below are factors to consider to match your program with today’s industry.  

Average Calves And Background Information

Raising calves should have goals like any other aspect of a production livestock enterprise.   These goals should be to avoid problems and produce results.  Often, calf raising goals are limited to problem avoidance.  Reducing death and illness rank near the top. The average Holstein heifer calf weighs 84 pounds at birth.  Five 100-pound calves and five 68-pound calves result in your average.  However, the big calves in this example are 47% larger than the small calves.  The big calves are 19% or almost one fifth bigger than average.  Doesn’t it seem likely these calves should be fed differently?  Don’t we feed cows giving 100 pounds of milk differently than those giving 68? Calves are getting a liquid TMR for very nearly all their nutrition for the first 14-21 days they are alive.  Even if these calves consume starter, hay, or grass, they are unable to efficiently digest and use the nutrients provided until sometime after week 2 or 3 of life.  During this early period, research has shown repeatedly that calves are extremely efficient biologically…they grow fast and are feed efficient.Our average 84-pound calf can grow on an average 2 quarts twice a day feeding program about 0.7 pound per day.  Our little 68-pound calf on this program can grow over 1.2 pounds per day.  Our big 100-pound calf can grow less than 0.5 pound per day. 

How Much Should They Grow?  Variables.

That depends on your goals.  In general we are targeting a 24-month or 730-day-old fresh heifer weighing about 1,400 pounds.  That averages 1.78 pounds per day growth rate.  While these calves are small, they are fast growing and efficient, so 1.5 to 2.0 pounds per day would seem to be a goal to reach for, but there are challenges.

  • Calves can only eat so much.
  • True - only 2-6 gallons of liquid per day.
  • Cold requires more energy to live.
  • True - a calf is “COLD’ below 60 degrees and requires close to 1/3 more for every 30 degree drop.
  • Sickness reduces a calf's appetite.
  • True - via a cytokine response.
  • Fever increases a calf’s energy requirements. 
  • True - a 3 degree fever increases energy use by approximately 30%
  • Immune response requires additional energy.
  • True - including those from vaccination protocols
  • Heat stress requires additional energy.
  • True - in addition to a much higher water/fluid requirement.

A healthy calf that grows 1 pound today will grow less tomorrow on the same feed. 

In the real world there are all these variables that detract from a calf’s ability to grow.  Calf raisers and their advisors need to work together to ensure calves have the greatest opportunity for success.  Based on all the potential negative variables above, it is no wonder we still often measure calf performance from a relatively negative perspective… she didn’t die and was only sick 3 days. Traditional feeding programs that focus on 2 liquid quarts of milk or milk replacer are least cost programs designed specifically to keep a calf alive (barely) until it will eat dry feed.  Given the variables above, this type of program may not be exactly what some producers have in mind for their calves. 

How Much To Feed For Performance And Health

Calves eat in order to gain the necessary nutritional components to live and thrive.  Some of the major components include calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals.  Of these, energy is very near the top priority.  Many of the variables in a calf’s life have the opportunity to negatively impact a calf’s energy status. Providing more energy than traditional 2 quart twice a day liquid programs, balanced with adequate protein provide a solid foundation for calf growth and immune development. If feeding all-liquid feeding programs, increased nutrition can be accomplished by feeding more liquid.  Feeding 2.5, 3, or even 4 quarts per feeding can be accomplished, and calves will get more nutrition.  As with any change in feeding regimen, small gradual changes will result in better responses and less animal stress.Another way to increase nutrition is to increase solids content of the milk or milk replacer solution fed to calves.  Traditional milk replacer mixing rates target 10% or 12.5% solids.  Whole milk tends to range from 10% to 14% solids. Adding more solids to the water milk and bringing the solids content to 15% is another management option that can increase nutrition with relative ease.  However, it is important to remember that more growth requires more water, as the body is over 85% water. 

Bottom Line

There is no single correct answer to the question: How much should we feed?  Certainly there are many answers to: Why do we feed calves like this?  It is important that you consider the variables and set performance goals and attempt to implement practical and economical approaches that will help you reach your goals.

Management Numbers To Consider

  • Feed calves more than 2 quarts twice a day liquid feed for the first month of life.
  • Mix milk replacer at 12.5 to 15% solids.
  • If feeding milk replacer, calves should get 1.25 to 2 pounds of powder/calf/day.
  • More liquid feed for calves under 4 weeks is generally better than less, considering the negative variables.
  • Target ADG over 1.5 pounds/calf/day for the milk and starter fed period. 
  • There aren’t many average calves.  Consider the variables

For more information, please call us at 1-800-553-1712 or email us at

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