Color Coded Calf Rearing- Milk Feeding Systems

Color Coded Calf Rearing- Milk Feeding Systems


Milk Replacer was first invented in the early 1950’s in an effort to allow dairyman an economical alternative to feeding calves saleable milk.  Research into calf milk feeding has come a long way over those years! There are now a variety of milk replacers and milk feeding systems available.

Conventional Milk Feeding

Conventional milk feeding dates back to that first milk replacer (MR), and most often refers to feeding 1-1.25 lbs. (454 to 568 g.) of a 20:20 MR powder per calf per day. This powder is divided into 2 feedings and mixed with water to be fed as 2 quarts (1.9 liters) of MR solution. This method of feeding is designed to be economical and encourage dry feed intake, to stimulate development of the rumen, and result in a successful weaning and transition program.

This feeding system provides enough energy to maintain the calf and support small amounts of growth, but the calf will need to eat dry feed to grow at acceptable rates; conventionally-fed calves are energy-driven to eat their starter feed. Additionally, a conventional feeding program will need to be adjusted considerably to meet the energy needs of the calf during cold weather.

Positives: Easy to manage, minimizes expense, encourages grain intake.

Possible Issues: Slower growth, lower body weight at weaning.

Accelerated Milk Feeding

In 2017, researchers Chester and Jones found that for every 2.2 lbs. (1kg.) of average dairy gain (ADG) in the first 6 weeks of life, 305-d milk yield improved 1,005 lbs. (456 kg.). To achieve greater ADG in the first few weeks of a calf’s life, they will need to be fed more than just 1-1.25 lbs. (454 to 568 g) of a conventional 20:20 MR.  Even feeding whole milk may not produce the muscle and skeletal growth desired for maximum calf growth.

To drive lean tissue growth in the calf, and overall ADG, it has become more popular to feed a high rate of a MR high in protein (24%-30%) and lower in fat (15%-20%). Feeding rates may vary between milk replacer manufacturers, but typically on an accelerated milk feeding program calves receive 1.5-2% of their body weight in milk powder for the first week, and 3% of their body weight after that. For a Holstein calf that would be approximately 1.35-1.8 lbs. (613-817 g.) of milk powder per day in the first week of life, and 2.25 -3 lbs. (1022-1369 g.) thereafter, until ready to reduce the amount in preparation for weaning. The total amount of powder per day is divided into 2-3 equal feedings and is reconstituted to 15-18% solids, much higher than the 12-13% solids of reconstituted powder in a conventional feeding program.

Due to the increase in nutrition from milk, calves will begin eating grain later than calves fed on a conventional program. It is recommended to not start weaning accelerated fed calves until they are consuming 3 lbs. (1352 g.) of starter per day compared to the recommended intake of 2.2 lbs. (1000 g.) for calves on a conventional program.

Positives: Increased ADG, increased milk production.

Possible Issues: Expensive, more difficult to manage, more bedding, subclinical disease may be more obvious after transitioning to an accelerated program, adequate colostrum and cleanliness are more important.

Moderate Milk Feeding

Managing an accelerated milk feeding program may be more complicated than many farms are capable of handling. Instead they may choose a milk replacer still high in protein (24-28%) and lower in fat (15-18%), but fed at a lower rate of 1.5-2 lbs. (681-908 g.) to avoid management issues with scours, phase feeding, decreased early grain intake, and decrease cost.

Also, a farm may have pasteurized waste milk available to feed calves.  Economically, it makes more sense to feed this milk and extend or boost it with milk replacer to achieve 12-14% solids if needed. These feeding systems are called moderate milk feeding systems. Calves are still fed a higher plane of nutrition compared to a conventional feeding program, ADG will be very good, early grain intake will be sufficient, but the calf may not maximize skeletal and muscular growth.

Positives: Increased ADG, increased milk production, economical, encourages grain intake.

Possible Issues: management of waste milk, monitoring solids.

Decision Making

When deciding which milk feeding system is best for you it is best to consider your goals for calf health and performance, the quality of milk replacer available to you, availability of waste milk, and cost. Discuss milk feeding options with your nutritionist or another knowledgeable service person.


Written by: Mariah Gull, M.S.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published