Randomized clinical trial of the effect of a fixed or increasing milk allowance in the first 2 weeks of life on health and performance of dairy calves

W. A. Knauer, S. M. Godden, S. M. McGuirk, J. Sorg

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The objective of this study was to describe the effect of offering a fixed or increasing milk allowance in the first 1 to 2 wk of life. We hypothesized that calves offered a fixed amount of milk early in life would not experience more scours, but rather would experience improved health and growth compared with calves that had their daily milk allowance slowly increased over a period of 1 to 2 wk. This randomized controlled clinical trial was conducted on 5 dairy farms in Minnesota with both a summer (June–August 2016) and winter (December–February 2017) period of enrollment. Heifer calves were enrolled at birth, weighed, and systematically assigned by birth order to either the slowly increasing (INC) control group or fixed allowance (FIX) treatment group by farm personnel. Calves assigned to the INC group were slowly increased from 4 to 5 L/d to gradually reach the full peak milk allowance of 6 to 8 L/d over a 7- to 14-d period, whereas calves assigned to the FIX group were offered a full peak milk allowance of 6 to 8 L/d beginning on d 1 after birth. The average FIX calf consumed an extra 14 L of milk as compared with INC calves over the first 2 wk of life, corresponding to an average INC intake of 5 L/d during first 1 to 2 wk of life as compared with an average intake of 6.8 L/d in FIX calves. Study technicians visited all farms weekly to collect health and performance data. Multivariable mixed models were used to describe the effect of treatment (INC/FIX) on 3-wk average daily gain (kg/d), 3-wk weight (kg), and hip height at wk 1, 3, and 7, controlling for the effect of season, birth weight, and the random effect of calf within farm. Multivariable logistic regression models were used to describe the effect of treatment on odds of technician and producer reported health events. A total of 1,264 heifer calves were enrolled (FIX n = 641; INC n = 623) with no difference in enrollment weight or hip height between groups. By 3 wk of age, FIX calves weighed 1.4 (0.59) kg more than INC calves, though the magnitude of this difference varied depending on the period of time INC calves were slowly increased in milk allowance (7 vs. 10 vs. 14 d). Calves in the FIX group grew 0.1 kg/d faster and were taller at wk 3 (0.3 ± 0.15 cm) of life. Forty-two percent (536/1,264) of all enrolled calves had a first treatment event, with no effect of treatment on technician-reported health scores and no overall effect on producer-reported treatment or mortality events. Under the conditions of this study, offering a fixed milk allowance from d 1 of life improved calf growth during the first 3 wk as compared with a gradual increase in milk allowance, with no detrimental effect on calf health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8100-8109
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Dairy Science
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2018



  • calf health
  • calf performance
  • milk feeding

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