Calf Connection: BMPs – Why don’t they work for me?

Recommendations for colostrum feeding and feeding milk or replacer in cold weather may not yield the same results on every dairy. Here’s why.

by Sam Leadley

It seems as though Best Management Practices (BMPs) don’t work equally well for all calf raisers. Why, when logic says BMPs should work for everyone?

Let’s take a look at two examples of BMPs which have not worked for some calf caretakers.

1) Colostrum quantity.

Until rather recently, the BMP recommendation for the quantity of colostrum has been to feed the newborn two quarts of quality colostrum. These days, the “new” BMP recommends feeding large breed newborn calves four quarts of colostrum, and three quarts to small breed newborns.

Unfortunately, when some calf care persons adopt the new quantity recommendation, their calves respond poorly. In fact, some calves scour so badly they die. Clearly, not good! That does not fit with a Best Management Practice. Feeding more colostrum really is supposed to improve calf health rather than make it worse. What’s causing the problem?

If the colostrum is not of high quality and/or is not fed quickly, feeding newborn calves a larger quantity of colostrum will not make up for those mistakes. But, let’s assume that high-quality colostrum is fed shortly after birth. Beyond these factors, what might be causing the problem?

The colostrum is contaminated with an excessively high number of bacteria. Feeding a calf “bacteria soup,” whether it’s fed right away or some time later gets the calf off to a bad start. The larger the quantity of contaminated colostrum fed to the newborn, the sicker the baby calf is likely to become. So, just feeding more is only one piece of a responsible and effective colostrum management program. Combining practices that provide clean colostrum with feeding the larger quantity of colostrum will most likely result in a good start for our calves.

2) Cold weather feeding rates.

BMPs for feeding milk or milk replacer to calves in colder weather basically recommend “feed more.” Past practice often has been to feed calves a limited amount year round. When calves use energy to keep warm, they need still more food in order to grow and to stay healthy. Thus, the recent emphasis has been on increasing feeding rates for calves reared outdoors or in cold barns starting in the fall and continuing until warmer spring weather.

Some calf raisers feed four quarts, twice daily. Their calves get more than 2.5 lbs. of milk replacer powder per day. Feeding milk replacer or milk like this during colder weather helps to promote growth and reduce sickness.

Unfortunately, after some calf care persons adopt the new milk feeding recommendations, their calves begin to have problems after weaning. Too many calves require treatment for pneumonia. Growth rates are poor. Clearly, not good! What might be causing the problem?

Higher milk or milk replacer feeding rates compared to the widely adopted practice of limiting milk to four quarts daily are best combined with carefully managed weaning programs. Why? Because we know high milk feeding levels are associated with delayed intake of calf starter grain. My calves on high milk rations usually waited until around three weeks of age before regularly eating calf starter grain, regardless of the fact that they had free choice water.

Waiting this long to start eating grain means rumen development is going to be later compared to calves eating grain two weeks earlier. This delay has to be accommodated when managing weaning if health and growth problems in transition calves are to be avoided.

The most common way to adjust an intensive milk feeding program to promote adequate rumen development is to use a gradual “step-down” weaning process. The need to do this is more urgent the earlier calves are weaned. For example, starting a step-down feeding program early is called for in calves weaned at 35 days compared to calves weaned at 56 days. A common weaning practice is to eliminate one feeding for calves being fed twice daily.

Why do the transition calves fed high rates of milk or milk replacer have problems after weaning on some farms, while on other farms they do much better? The rearing programs with these problems most often only adopt one-half of the package – feed more. The other half of the package – adopting a weaning program to promote adequate rumen development before weaning – is neglected.

The common thread

What is the common thread in these two examples even though each case involved a different BMP? The thread running through each is that, in order to get the desired response to BMPs, we must look at the whole picture when implementing any one of them. BMPs are intended to be profitable for the dairy. And they can be if viewed from – and implemented using – the larger perspective. p


Sam Leadley is a replacement consultant with Attica Veterinary Associates, Attica, N.Y. Contact him via e-mail:; phone: 585-591-2660; or visit