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  • Programming Your Calves for Success

    Programming Your Calves for Success

    The most important investment you can make for the future of your herd is early calf nutrition. The management decisions made at this critical time determine the health and production level for the rest of these cows’ lives.

    From the mid 1900’s to as recently as ten years ago, it was recommended that calves receive 1-2 large meals of colostrum within the first 12 hours, but there is growing concern that this method may not actually provide enough vital nutrients to the calf and can cause detrimental effects to growth and health in later life.

    Beginning in the 1960’s, the concept of “metabolic programming” (or imprinting) has been of interest to the dairy industry and recent research shows that many benefits for dairy cow health and productivity could be seen if this practice is adopted. The underlying principle of metabolic programming is that early life nutrition permanently impacts metabolism and performance in later life. Practically, compared to the strategy of feeding just a couple of large meals, this would mean increasing the fluid consumption of calves for several weeks and delaying weaning to ensure that adequate amounts of nutrients, fat and energy are being provided to get calves off to the right start.

    The First 24 Hours

    There are a number of different aspects influencing calf nutrition. During the first 24 hours after birth, the timing and delivery method of colostrum can affect the efficiency of nutrient absorption and gastrointestinal health.

    Since the calves are born with no immunity, it is critical that they receive the immunoglobulins contained in colostrum shortly after birth. Most operations feed a large meal of three to four liters almost immediately with another two liters within 6 hours. However, this method may undersupply vital bioactive ingredients necessary for digestive and immune system development¹. A study in 2007 estimated that 50% of calves in the US are underfed the total amount of colostrum necessary to receive adequate amounts of these nutrients.

    The structure of a newborn calf’s digestive system requires that  specific feeding strategies be used. The suckling action of the calf causes the esophageal groove to close, allowing fluid to bypass the rumen and directly enter the abomasum6. Switching to bucket feeding calves too soon prevents this bypass and the fluid that enters the rumen undergoes rapid fermentation, leading to serious and even fatal cases of bloat.

    The abomasal volume of a newborn calf is one to one and a half liters6. Feeding excessive amounts in one meal causes fluid to spill into the duodenum (the first section of the small intestine), which disrupts osmotic balance, prevents the digestion of casein and provides a medium for bacterial growth in the intestine, leading to diarrhea.

    To prevent adverse effects on the developing digestive system, calves should be bottle fed smaller meals of colostrum more frequently or allowed to suckle over the first 24 hours after birth. This method may even increase the total amount consumed, resulting in a higher immunoglobulin intake and better immune system development.

    Don’t Forget Transition Milk

    Another important component of metabolic programming is transition milk. Although it is not as concentrated as colostrum, transition milk still contains elevated levels of immunoglobulins, natural hormones and growth factors7. These elements have a positive impact on digestive tract development, increasing cell growth, surface area, lactose digestion and glucose absorption.

    Calves still need  immunoglobulins up to approximately 4 weeks of age, when the immune system transitions from the passive immunity supplied by colostrum and transition milk to the antibody-mediated immunity provided by the calf’s own immune system. Although larger immunoglobulin molecules cannot be absorbed by the digestive system after the first 24 hours after birth, they can still protect the calf against pathogens within the digestive system.

    Long Term Benefits of Metabolic Programming

    Traditionally, fluid intake is restricted in the first few weeks to encourage grain intake for growth and therefore accelerate weaning to reduce feed and management costs2. Although the addition of free choice concentrates is essential for rumen development, research from seven university studies analyzed by Cornell University indicates that also offering free choice milk for five to eight weeks after birth has beneficial long-term effects on growth, health and milk production8.


    Increasing the amounts of colostrum and milk fed to calves increases feed efficiency since a lower proportion of nutrients are required for body growth during the first few weeks after birth9. Subsequently, each pound of gain costs less and body weight gain efficiency also increases. In addition, calves with lower milk consumption have decreased energy intake that cannot be replaced by starter feed.

    Heifers achieve puberty when they reach a certain body weight, not when they reach a specific age. Metabolic programming can potentially allow heifers to reach this target weight up to 29 days earlier, therefore supporting an earlier conception and increasing their productive lifespan3.

    There is also evidence that the mammary epithelium is responsive to nutrient intake during the pre-weaning period and that metabolic programming may result in allometric mammary growth (mammary tissue grows or develops at a faster rate than other body tissues). One study estimated that the mammary parenchymal cells (functional cells that produce and secrete milk) experience a 5.6 times faster growth rate2.

    Digestive Development

    Liquid feed also plays a role in the development of the digestive system. Colostrum intake affects the activity of digestive enzymes, secretion of gastric pancreatic hormones, as well as the intestinal absorptive capacity2. These are important factors that will prepare the calf for optimum feed efficiency and potentially determine her future production capability.

    Free choice concentrate should also be offered several weeks after birth as it is essential for rumen development. In the past it was a concern that an increased liquid feeding rate would predispose calves to digestive problems such as scours, but this is more likely a problem with the quality of the milk being fed, the feeding method employed, and the level of hygiene of the equipment being used9.

    Immune Response

    According to recent research, calves that have been metabolically programmed have more efficient immune responses and so are better able to fight infections9. After several weeks of an increased liquid feeding rate, calves show a higher blood serum concentration of immunoglobulins A and G, which are major molecules of the immune system3. This greater immune response translates into increased yields during future lactations and decreased treatment costs, antibiotic use, labor, cull rates and total rearing costs9.

    The Ultimate Goal - Milk Production

    Although the initial costs associated with prolonged liquid feeding are higher, metabolic programming has a long term effect on milk production as well as calf growth, health, and development. Each unit of increase in blood serum immunoglobulin G 24 hours after birth is associated with an 8.5 kg/day increase in yield during the first lactation and the increased nutrient intake from liquid feeding for 56 days compared to restricted feeding results in an increased total first lactation yield ranging from 450kg-1300kg2.

    Research demonstrates that feeding milk free choice results in 1.2kg/day more fat corrected milk and this number increases to 2.8 kg/day when an additional protein supplement was provided2. The increased feed efficiency and weight gain seen with metabolic programming also causes each additional kilogram of average daily gain to result in an 850kg greater total yield during the first lactation2.

    Metabolically programming your calves may induce higher pre-weaning costs, but the benefits and eventual production potential will repay those expenses many times over.


    1 Steele, M. (2016, July). The next decade of calf research: Where do we go from here? Progressive Dairyman Canada, p. 30.

    2Soberon, F. (2012). Early Life Nutrition of Dairy Calves and its Implications on Future Milk Production. Cornell University.

    3Arthington, D. J., & Moriel, P. (2013, September). Early nutrition of calf shapes future growth. Feedstuffs, pp. 12-13.

    4Calf Care Corner. (2016, June). Calf Management. Milk Producer, pp. 20-21.

    5Wren, G. (2011, January 17). Dairy Calf Gut Health. Retrieved from Drovers: http://www.cattlenetwork.com/bovine-vet/bv-magazine/dairy-calf-gut-health-113984974.html

    6National Animal Disease Information Service. (2016, August 08). Calf Nutrition and Colostrum Management. Retrieved from Cattle: http://www.nadis.org.uk/bulletins/calf-nutrition-and-colostrum-management.aspx

    7Wright, T. (2016, June). Transition Milk for Your Calves. Milk Producer, pp. 40-41.

    8Mattox, J. (2016, January 19). Accelerated group feeding has potential long-term benefits. Progressive Dairyman, pp. 44-45.

    9James, R. E. (2015, September). Making it Pay! Dairy Pipeline, p. 1.

    Image Credit: New Calf

    About the Author

    Anna Schwanke is an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph, Ontario. She is responsible for researching and writing about a wide variety of topics related to dairy cow welfare and management for Dairy Quality Inc. The 10 years she spent living in Australia, as well as her love of travelling, give her a firsthand viewpoint of issues facing the international dairy community. She plans to graduate from the University’s College of Physical & Engineering Science in 2019 and pursue a career in the Life Sciences or Agriculture industry.


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