Four daily meals for baby calves improves grain uptake, early study shows
I recently visited dairy farms throughout Minnesota with my University of Minnesota Extension colleagues. We observed that many dairies have invested in automated calf feeding systems, but the producers had questions about feeding procedures to optimize calf health, welfare and growth performance.
In order to address some of their questions, we conducted a study at the University of Minnesota Dairy Cattle Teaching and Research Facility in St. Paul to determine if increased feeding frequency of smaller meals of milk replacer increased grain intake in calves compared with conventional twice-daily milk feeding.
We did not have an automated calf feeding system for our initial study, so extra feedings were done in a controlled manner to simulate an automatic calf feeding system. We observed an increase in grain intake in calves fed four small meals, versus the same amount of milk replacer fed in two meals. These computerized calf feeding systems appear to be an investment that can pay off in efficiency, greater calf performance and perhaps improved animal welfare.
Calves fed on the farms with automated calf feeders were ruminating (chewing their cud) at a considerably young age. Calves are born with a non-functional rumen (fermentation vat where feed-stuffs are digested) and the fact that these young calves were chewing their cud indicates they have advanced the development of the rumen which is likely caused by the consumption of grain. This advanced development confers an advantage of more efficient growth and improved health.
With grant support from the University of Minnesota and the allied dairy industry, we will continue our research in the mechanization of feeding the baby calf to provide dairy producers with information for raising a healthy and productive future dairy cow.