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How Much Starter Grain Should a Pre-Weaned Dairy Calf be Eating?

How Much Starter Grain Should a Pre-Weaned Dairy Calf be Eating?

Dale Moore, Dept. Veterinary Clinical Sciences, Washington State University, Amber Adams-Progar, Dept. Animal Sciences, Washington State University, William Sischo, Dept. Veterinary Clinical Sciences, Washington State University
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Grain Consumption on Three Farms

Pre-weaned dairy calves need starter grain to initiate rumen development. Bacteria in the rumen begin to utilize nutrients from the starter grain and produce volatile fatty acids that assist with rumen development and feed intakes (Heinrichs 2014). There are guidelines on how much grain a calf should be eating in order to have a functional rumen and be weaned. The rule of thumb is that calves should be consuming about 2 pounds (about 4 cups) of starter per day for three days in a row to be weaned onto all-solid feed (Jones, and Heinrichs 2017). Although calves can safely drink up to 20% of their body weight in milk or milk replacer, many dairy calves are still limit-fed their liquid diet and need to consume adequate amounts of starter grain in order to grow (Khan et al. 2011). To maximize starter grain consumption, it is essential to understand how much calves will eat and what factors might impede consumption of starter grain.

Figure 1. Holstein calf with a textured starter grain with rolled oats, rolled corn, and pellets.


ADG: Average Daily Grain
CF: Crude Fat
CP: Crude Protein


To demonstrate differences in starter grain consumption, data on starter intakes from a large clinical trial to evaluate health effects of feeding a colostrum supplement to calves between 2 and 14 days of life on three farms were summarized (Berge et al. 2009). By three days of age a textured (Figure 1) calf starter (CP = 18%) was provided to calves after each morning milk feeding. One cup, equal to about one-half pound, of fresh starter grain was given to the calves every day. The grain remaining from the previous day was measured in cups and then discarded. Grain consumption from the previous day was recorded and fresh starter grain added to the calves’ buckets.

More than 90 calves on each of the three calf ranches were assessed daily for 28 days. Farm 1 was a calf ranch raising dairy bull calves for beef and fed calves 2 quarts, twice daily of a medicated 22% Crude Protein (CP) and 18% Crude Fat (CF) milk replacer. Calves were observed from October through November. Farm 2 was a calf ranch raising dairy-sourced bull calves and heifer calves for replacements, in which calves were fed 2 quarts, twice daily, of a 22% CP: 22% CF medicated milk replacer. Calves were observed from January through February. Farm 3 raised dairy bull calves that were fed 2 quarts twice daily of a non-medicated milk replacer that was 22% CP and 18% CF. Calves 1 to 28 days of age on Farm 3 were observed in September. The average daily grain consumption for calves on each calf ranch (in cups) was calculated and plotted for each farm for 28 days of life (Figure 2). One cup of starter grain was equal to about 0.5 lb.

On Farm 1, starter grain consumption did not begin until about 8 days of age but rose over the next three weeks. By 4 weeks of age, calves were consuming about 3.5 cups (about 1.75 lb) per day.  On Farm 2, calves had an earlier start in grain consumption, eating one-half cup (0.25 lb) of grain, on average, after 4 days of age but showed a slump in consumption between 10 and 14 days of age.



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