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Accelerated Calf Feeding Program Update
by Michael F. Hutjens


  • Accelerated calf feeding programs can increase early growth that is maintained to freshening
  • Added cost of this system is $50 more per heifer, although cost per pound of gain is not greatly increased
  • Top management is needed for success and the program is not for everyone
  • Calves should be monitored and adjusted individually

With replacement heifers worth over $2000 and female calves worth four dollars a pound, dairy managers and calf raisers are looking for better ways to raise healthy heifers faster and get them in the milking herd at an optimal age. A survey of 1702 herds in the U.S. found 28 percent of heifers calved from 25 to 27 months of age and 23 percent over 27 months of age. With an added cost of two dollars per extra day, potential savings exist on many dairy farms. A larger concern was 87 percent of the heifers in the study freshen below 1210 pounds post calving representing another loss of 600 pounds of milk for every 100 pounds of body weight under 1250 pounds post calving in the first lactation based on New York data.

Cornell University and the University of Illinois have conducted studies to determine that accelerated heifers fed under intensified programs can grow at faster rates to achieve larger herd replacements at a younger age (review Illinois research reports in this booklet). The accelerated calf feed approach is not a new. Suckling calves consume milk free choice and early work with milk replacers reported feeding two or more gallons of milk a day. Whole milk contains 29 to 30 percent fat and 25 to 26 percent protein on a dry matter basis. When using the appropriate formulated milk replacers and starters, accelerated growth is biological normal growth controlled by the calf raiser. Illinois researchers list several advantages and disadvantages for accelerated calf feeding programs. Advantages are listed below.

  • Decreased time to breeding and first calving
  • Increased efficiency of body size gain
  • Improved health and immune system
  • Enhanced milk production ability at calving

Disadvantages of an accelerated program are outlined below.

  • Increased costs during the milk feeding period (over $50 per calf)
  • Increased scouring and rough-looking calves if management is not optimum
  • Delayed rumen development and poor transition at weaning
  • Intensive management required for program success

Based on studies at Cornell, Illinois, and commercial milk replacer companies, the following questions and recommendations should be evaluated.

What are the best farms to use an accelerated calf program?

Dairies with intensive calf and heifer management systems who want to maximize genetic potential, raise taller heifers at an earlier age, and want bigger calves may want to consider this system. Calf raisers that feed large amount of whole milk or waste milk (over three quarts per feeding) have already tried this system. Management and calf raising skills must be excellent.

What changes occur when using an accelerated calf program?

  • The liquid diet should be more concentrate at 17 percent dry matter compared to 13 percent in whole milk or traditional milk replacer programs. Follow directions of the manufacturer on the label for mixing.
  • Use only a milk replacer formulated specifically for accelerated feeding programs. Those milk powders contain is 28 to 30 percent crude protein and 15 to 20 percent fat.
  • Mix one batch of liquid for all calves (no individual bottles) to avoid errors in weighing (no cup or volumetric measurements leading to mistakes).
  • For large breed heifers, feed 2 to 2 ½ quarts per feeding (twice a day) for week one.
  • Feed 3 to 3 ½ quarts per feeding twice a day from week two to weaning. Do not increase the liquid amount as the calf grows to encourage calf starter intake.
  • Feed 3 to 3 ½ quarts once a day for the week of weaning to stimulate starter intake.
  • Water must be available free choice at all times starting at day two.
  • Calves over 14 days of age on a traditional program should not be placed on the accelerated program.

Should every calf get the same feeding approach?

Each calf is unique and calf managers should monitor calf response to the accelerated program. Twins, calves from difficult calving, and weak calves may not consume the amounts listed above. Back down the amount by one half quart increments until the calf can consume it. Do not force feed with an esophageal feeder.

Will manure consistency change?

University and industry researchers report that the number of treatable disease did not increase, but the calf’s manure will be looser in consistency. During clinical illness and heat stress, the color the manure appears creamy white. If the manure becomes too loose, check for dehydration and add an electrolyte to the free choice water. Good management is a must, do not crowd calves, and provide adequate bedding to keep calves dry. Calves may appear more marked or dirty with looser feces.

Is my current calf starter adequate?

The calf starter should be higher in protein containing 22 percent on an air dry or feed tag basis (24 to 25 percent on a dry matter basis). Calves eat about the half of the normal level due to higher liquid intake before weaning. Calves must be consuming calf starter before weaning or calves will “stall out”. Reducing milk replacer intake before weaning encourages starter intake. The starter should be palatable (course texture, sticky with molasses, and not contain fines or dust). By week 12, starter intake on accelerated calves may surpass normal calf starter intake on traditional programs resulting in more calf starter in total. Water must be available at all times.

What is the typical timetable of calves on accelerated calf program?

  • Weaning can occur at 6 to 8 weeks after birth with adequate starter intake.
  • Feed the higher nutrient calf starter up to 12 weeks of age as a complete starter offering forage if starter intake exceeds 6 to 8 pounds per calf.
  • Over 12 weeks of age, shift heifers to an aggressive heifer feeding program to maintain 1.8 to 2.0 pounds of gain per day with forages and a calf grower grain mix. Do not fatten calves leading to the risk of fatty udder development.

In summary, an accelerated calf program requires top-notch management, unique milk replacer and calf starter feeds, and an extra $50 investment in this phase of the calf program. To recover this investment, calves must continue to grow, be bred 30 to 45 days earlier than normal based on size (not age), and be managed to avoid fat heifers. An accelerated calf program is not “right” for everyone, just like TMR or BST does not work for everyone. Consider the accelerated calf approach as a “new” method to achieve genetic growth potential. Some dairy managers report poor results and have abandoned the system. Other calf growers are pleased and excited about results to date. Each producer will need to evaluate how this system works on her or his farm. You can wait two years for the final answers or consider this technology now.

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