Feeding Calves Once a Day Cuts Labor Needs

Posted: March 3, 2007

Feeding calves takes time. In fact, estimates of the labor required to care for calves and heifers from birth to calving show that milk-fed calves are the most time-consuming age group. This is no surprise to those who spend hours every day mixing milk replacer, pasteurizing waste milk, coaxing calves to drink, feeding starter, re-filling water buckets, and cleaning buckets. The concept of feeding one time a day is not new, but it is not commonly used on farms in the Northeast and Midwest. It was initially studied in the 1970s but only caught on to a limited degree. Recent research at Penn State was conducted to re-define and re-address this concept with a slightly different system to more adequately address the physiological growth of the calf within the concept of once-a-day feeding. We chose to delay once-a-day feeding until two weeks of age, when calves begin relying on energy produced by the developing rumen. In general, the research confirms that calves can be fed once each day, rather than twice. This practice could cut the labor needs for calf care dramatically. With the current climate of high costs for feed and other inputs and uncertainties in the labor market, this may be an ideal time to revisit an old idea.

In our study, 60 calves were fed milk replacer at 10 percent of birth weight in two feedings for the first two weeks of life. Beginning day 15, calves received the same amount of milk in a single feeding. Once daily feeding continued through weaning, but during the week before weaning, milk replacer was reduced to 5 percent of birth weight. Calves were weaned at three, four, five, or six weeks of age. In a similar trial, conducted just prior to this study, 64 calves were fed twice per day and weaned at three, four, five, or six weeks of age. Calves weaned at three weeks were fed identically in the two trials.

A key component to this research that may have previously limited the use of once-a-day feeding system is that we began the once-a-day system after two weeks of age. When calves are taught to eat some starter at two to three days of age, they have already begun rumen development at two weeks of age. When we move them to once daily feeding after two weeks, they can rely on limited rumen fermentation for microbial protein and energy production and perhaps will consume more grain due to being fed only one time per day.

In our studies, starter intake was higher for calves fed once daily than those fed twice a day, but feed efficiency was similar for all calves. The cost of this increase in starter intake was offset by reduced labor needs, and although it was not part of this study, increased starter intake at an earlier age would enable weaning at an earlier age, creating savings in reduced milk replacer and labor costs. Calves can be weaned as soon as they are eating 1.5 to 2 pounds of starter per day for three consecutive days. Body weight, average daily gain (shown in Figure 1), hip height, and withers height were the same for calves fed once or twice daily. In addition, calf health measured by scores for fecal material, respiratory disease, and general appearance was the same regardless of how many feedings were provided each day. Healthy calves are essential in a once-a-day system. This includes a low level of exposure to cryptosporidia or coccidia, parasites that can infect calves during this time period. Rumen development and body composition of calves were not affected by feeding system. Although they did not suffer in weight gain or health, calves weaned at three weeks of age required extra attention and care to ensure they had adequate starter intake before weaning. We concluded that although it is possible to wean at three weeks it is not at all practical as most calves do not consume enough calf starter by this age. Since calf performance was not affected by once daily feeding, even when calves were weaned at very young ages, we concluded that a single feeding may be used to reduce calf labor requirements. In addition, calves may be weaned as early as four weeks of age with no negative effects on health or growth. In addition, calves may have improved starter intake with once-a-day feeding.

Cutting out one feeding will reduce the amount of time needed to care for calves. However, catching sick calves as early as possible and starting the appropriate treatment is essential to limiting the duration and severity of the disease. Therefore, it is important to continue inspecting calves at least twice each day. A quick look at each calf to check her fecal score and general attitude will be needed to continue to identify calves that are sick or are in the early stages of an illness. An important precaution before you try this calf feeding program is that calves must be healthy. Poor sanitation, ventilation, or ongoing health concerns in your calf rearing system will not allow you to use this method with success. However, well managed facilities can use this practice to reduce calf feeding times and also potentially reduce age at weaning due to increased calf starter consumption at earlier ages.

Average Daily Gain Chart

Figure 1. Average daily gain (ADG) of calves weaned at 3, 4, 5, or 6 weeks of age in two trials. During Trial 1 calves were fed milk replacer twice each day. During Trial 2, calves were fed milk replacer twice each day for the first two weeks of life and once each day from day 15 through weaning. Feeding once a day instead of twice did not affect weight gain in these calves.



Coleen Jones and Jud Heinrichs

Dept. of Dairy and Animal Science Research Associate and Dairy and Animal Science Extension Professor