Winter Feeding Calves

As winter brings colder temperatures to Wisconsin, the nutritional need of young calves continues to increase.  Understanding the nutritional needs of calves is essential for creating a quality feeding program that will promote healthy growth and development.  UW-Extension Brown County Agriculture Agent Liz Binversie shares feeding strategies for winter feeding.

What are the energy needs of a growing calf?
Calves require energy to maintain their bodies, to promote healthy growth and development, to stay warm, and to recover from illness if your calf is sick.  If a calf doesn’t receive the necessary energy to do all of these things, you may start to see decreased performance and weight loss.  Especially in these cold winter temperatures, a calf will require a lot more energy.  The thermal neutral zone (comfort zone) for newborn calves is 50-78°F while one-month old calves’ thermal neutral zone is 32-78°F.  Once the temperature reaches below the lower critical temperature of 32°F for our one-month old calves or 50°F for newborn calves, the energy they consume is now used for maintenance making less available for growth and immune function.  Based on a 2007 NAHMS USDA study, only 33% of dairy producers change calf-feeding practices in cold weather.  Failure to minimize the effects of cold stress results in depressed immune function, increased risk of sickness, poor response to treatment, decreased growth performance and possible death.  The following are some feeding strategies to cope with the harsh weather in the coming months.

Feeding Strategies:

Feed more fat.  A University of Minnesota trial showed adding ¼ pound of a 60% supplemental fat increased growth rate during the first three weeks of life.  However, feeding too much fat can decrease starter grain intake.  Only use supplemental fat for the first 14 days of life and gradually wean calves offa.

Feed more milk or milk replacer.  There are three ways to feed more milk replacer.

1) Add a feeding.  Feeding a third meal will increase amount of solids by 1/3 compared to feeding only twice dailya,f.
2) Increase volume.  Increase the feeding volume by 1/3 between the two feedings.  This is the same as adding a third meal.  However, these larger meals can decrease starter grain intake and cause digestive upseta.
3) Increase solids.   Another way to feed more milk replacer is to add more powder to the volume of milk replacer mixed.  One should consult with your nutritionist to determine amount of powder to add to increase energy.  However, total solids in milk replacer should not exceed 15%.  Anything greater can cause health risks.  When feeding whole milk, it is recommended to pasteurize it first to reduce the risk of bacterial pathogens, especially for non-saleable milka.

Feed quality milk replacer.  Read the tag carefully to make sure you are choosing a quality milk replacer.  Not all protein sources are created equal.

  • Acceptable protein sources:  Milk protein, soy protein isolate, protein modified soy flour, soy protein concentrate, animal plasma, wheat gluten or isolateb.
  • Marginal protein sources: Soy flourb.
  • Not acceptable protein sources: Meat soluble, fish protein concentrate, wheat flourb.

Consider what type of milk replacer feeding program you use.

  • Traditional.  A traditional program uses 20:20 or 20% protein and 20% fat.  Often energy intake and growth is limited due to the levels fed.  Higher intake may give calves enough nutrition for growth but the higher protein will limit gaine.
  • Accelerated.  An accelerated program uses milk replacers with higher protein (26-28%) and lower fat (15-20%) content.  This program is more expensive than a traditional program so you will need to evaluate if this type of program is economicalb.

Consult with your nutritionist to determine an appropriate feeding rate, as it will vary depending on the type of milk replacer program and manufacturer used.

Feed more starter or get calves on starter sooner.  Starter provides another source of energy for calves.  Begin offering starter at two-three days of age.  Calves should begin eating some starter by five to seven days of age.  By the second week, calves should be consuming ¼ to ½ pounds per day. If your calf has not begun eating starter by this time, something is wrong.  You will need to troubleshoot your starter quality, calf health, and feeding practicesa.  Make sure buckets are at the correct height to facilitate easy access.  The bucket opening height should be no higher than 20-24 inches off the groundc.  Before weaning, a calf should be eating starter for at least 3 weeks and should be eating 2 pounds of starter for 3 days in a rowb.

Use warm water, not cold. Water is essential for maintaining body fluids, rumen development, digestion, and eliminating waste.  Calves should consume 10% of body weight in water daily.  Since milk intake does not substitute for water, provide supplemental water.  Feed water that’s been warmed just above 1020 F within 30 minutes of feedingd.  Free-choice water should be given.  Calves should get at least one gallon of water per calf per day for the first month of life and two gallons during the seconda.

No matter what type of feeding program is used, keep these general principles in mind to keep calves healthy and performing well.  To monitor progress, calves should double in birth weight by 55 days of age.   Because all calves are uniquely different, use visual cues to determine if calves are performing well and thriving.  If a calf is not, changes may be needed to suit that individual calf’s needs.

For more information regarding heifer management please visit UW-Extension Heifer Management.


aLitherland, Noah.  Feeding and management tips to combat cold stress in nursery calves.  December 7, 2013.  University of Minnesota Extension.

bChester-Jones, Hugh and N. Broadwater.  2009.  Calf Starters.  PowerPoint presentation.  MN Dairy Days.

 cLitherland, Noah.  2011.  How many of your calves will the abominable snowman eat this winter?  University of Minnesota Extension.

 dLee, Karen. 2013.  10 tips for raising calves in cold weather.  Progressive Dairyman.

eChester-Jones, Hugh.  2005.  Perspectives of dairy calf nutrition and health.  Powerpoint presentation.  University of Minnesota Extension.

fKmicikewycz, Alanna, D. da Silva, and N.B Litherland.  Effects of a modified intensive milk replacer program fed two or four times daily on nutrient intake, calf growth and health.  University of Minnesota Extension.

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