Calf Starter Grain Feeding:
The Forgotten and Neglected Step-Child
Providing easily fermented carbohydrates is essential for converting our newborn calves from a "monogastric" animal (like a piglet) to a ruminant (like a cow). When beef calves follow their dams on pasture they begin to eat tender, easily fermented slips of grass. But, what about our confinement-raised dairy calves?
We provide free-choice water and calf starter grain to support rumen development. With superior management we can encourage calves to consume this grain early in life. And, with our consistent management we can achieve daily intakes of 4 to 6 pounds by roughly 8 weeks of age.
Have you heard of this, "If anything can go wrong, it will." (Murphy's Law). What can possibly go wrong with the simple process of offering grain to a calf?
I observe that calf starter grain feeding is the forgotten and neglected step-child in calf management.
The most common error I have seen on dairy farms is when workers are pail feeding grain they add fresh grain on top of spoiled grain. Just dump more grain on top of moldy stuff. Ugh! I see this most often in warm weather months that provide favorable mold growth conditions. Another environmental factor that encourages mold growth is placing the grain-feeding bucket next to the water bucket rather than separating them - handy for the calf to drool water into the grain. OUTCOME: depressed grain intake.
The next most common error I observe is making the initial grain feeding too large. For example, filling a 10-quart pail one-half full of grain - very first feeding. The consequence is to leave this half-full pail untouched for weeks - the neglected step-child - never checked for grain freshness, never replaced with fresh, clean grain. OUTCOME: delay in initial grain intake, depressed grain intake overall.
Finally, workers let fines build up in the bottom of buckets. Regardless of the quality of pellets either fed alone or incorporated into a textured feed, all pellets shed fines. They end up in the bottom of pails. They are the least palatable part of the concentrate ration (and, very subject to mold growth). By regularly dumping grain buckets this buildup is avoided. OUTCOME: depressed grain intake.
I cannot find research that compared grain intakes in the first three or four weeks of life where the care givers either did or did not change the grain daily. With my own calves I began offering grain at 4 or 5 days of age and changed the grain daily (just a handful). I do not have any research data to support that practice - I only had a "seat-of-the-pants" sense that providing a handful of fresh, fines-free grain daily would encourage early grain intake.
By the way, if you are caring for calves daily I may share that somewhere around 5 percent of my calves over the years were "grain-laggards." That is, they just did not want to get on the program of eating grain. Since it was easy for me to approach and hold a calf I even tried feeding them a handful of grain each time I came to their hutch to feed milk/water. I can't say that this practice was especially effective. Some of them had to be cut back to close to 0.5 pounds of milk powder (2 quarts of milk replacer mixed at 12.5% solids) daily before they finally got the message to eat grain.
So, try to avoid turning grain feeding into the neglected step-child. It's great to see these little heifers end their dependence on milk and become independent ruminants!