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Feeding young calves the proper nutrition

June is ‘Dairy Month’ and that might be an appropriate time to review the nutrition program for those young calves born in a dairy herd. But, it is also something that those with a beef cow-calf program should review, since it seems each calving season there is a cow that won’t accept her calf, or there are multiple births which can result in feeding a milk replacer.

“The first weeks of a calf’s life sets the stage for their growth and development,” said Julian Olson, DVM, technical services manager for Milk Products. “Providing the proper nutrition and quickly reacting to any early sign of stress or illness can help keep your calves growing and healthy.”

Those early first months – According to Olson, milk or milk replacer is the primary source of nutrition for calves during the first two to three months of life until weaning. When selecting a milk replacer, search for one specifically formulated for calves. A good milk replacer will provide your calves with the optimal blend of energy, consisting of carbohydrates and fat, protein, vitamins and minerals.

The milk replacer should be fed at a temperature close to the calf’s body temperature – from 100 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Calves thrive on routine, so it is best to feed your calf twice a day at the same time in the morning and evening,” Olson said. “If possible, a third feeding can provide beneficial added nutrition for your calves to grow efficiently.”

It is also important to keep feeding equipment clean, he noted, stressing the following points:

  • Always use a separate bottle or pail for each calf.
  • Make sure to wash pails, bottles and nipples in hot, soapy water and rinse well after each feeding.
  • Moisture can create an optimal breeding ground for bacteria, so it is important to allow equipment to dry thoroughly between feedings. If drying conditions are poor, consider drying the equipment with a clean towel.

Start calf-starter early – A calf can be introduced to free-choice calf starter when they are a few days old, according to Olson. A good starter grain should have at least 18 percent protein. Calves are born as monogastrics, with a stomach adapted for digesting milk.

Cows, however, are ruminants, with a four-part stomach built for digesting large quantities of forage. Feeding calves starter grain will help optimize rumen development by increasing the size and population of beneficial bacteria in the immature rumen. Refrain from feeding forages, which can slow rumen development, to calves until after they are weaned, he suggested.

Don’t forget the water, Olson stressed. Water is another important element of calf nutrition. Providing calves with clean, fresh water will encourage them to drink plenty of water, which will also enhance starter grain intake and rumen activity.

Keep calves healthy – Calves are more prone to stress during times of extreme heat or cold, vaccination, transportation or weaning. In times of stress, calves can experience health challenges such as scours.

“If your calves get scours, it’s crucial to immediately rehydrate and replenish electrolyte loss,” he said. “Feeding an electrolyte supplement, in addition to regular milk feedings, can help support a calf’s immune system while fighting off infection.

“The first few months of a calf’s life are the foundation for their whole life. By optimizing their nutrition and providing immune support during times of sickness or stress, you can help ensure calves have a healthy, productive life.”


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