Preweaning Milk Replacer Intake and Effects on Long-Term Productivity of Dairy Calves

J Dairy Sci. 2012 Feb;95(2):783-93. doi: 10.3168/jds.2011-4391.


The preweaning management of dairy calves over the last 30 yr has focused on mortality, early weaning, and rumen development. Recent studies suggest that nutrient intake from milk or milk replacer during the preweaning period alters the phenotypic expression for milk yield. The objective of this study was to investigate the relationship between nutrient intake from milk replacer and pre- and postweaning growth rate with lactation performance in the Cornell dairy herd and a commercial dairy farm. The analysis was conducted using traditional 305-d first-lactation milk yield and residual lactation yield estimates from a test-day model (TDM) to analyze the lactation records over multiple lactations. The overall objective of the calf nutrition program in both herds was to double the birth weight of calves by weaning through increased milk replacer and starter intake. First-lactation 305-d milk yield and residuals from the TDM were generated from 1,244 and 624 heifers from the Cornell herd and from the commercial farm, respectively. The TDM was used to generate lactation residuals after accounting for the effects of test day, calving season, days in milk, days pregnant, lactation number, and year. In addition, lactation residuals were generated for cattle with multiple lactations to determine if the effect of preweaning nutrition could be associated with lifetime milk yield. Factors such as preweaning average daily gain (ADG), energy intake from milk replacer as a multiple of maintenance, and other growth outcomes and management variables were regressed on TDM milk yield data. In the Cornell herd, preweaning ADG, ranged from 0.10 to 1.58 kg, and was significantly correlated with first-lactation yield; for every 1 kg of preweaning ADG, heifers, on average, produced 850 kg more milk during their first lactation and 235 kg more milk for every Mcal of metabolizable energy intake above maintenance. In the commercial herd, for every 1 kg of preweaning ADG, milk yield increased by 1,113 kg in the first lactation and further, every 1 kg of prepubertal ADG was associated with a 3,281 kg increase in first-lactation milk yield. Among the 2 herds, preweaning ADG accounted for 22% of the variation in first-lactation milk yield as analyzed with the TDM. These results indicate that increased growth rate before weaning results in some form of epigenetic programming that is yet to be understood, but has positive effects on lactation milk yield. This analysis identifies nutrition and management of the preweaned calf as major environmental factors influencing the expression of the genetic capacity of the animal for milk yield.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animal Feed
  • Animals
  • Animals, Suckling / growth & development
  • Animals, Suckling / physiology
  • Cattle / growth & development
  • Cattle / physiology*
  • Dairying / methods
  • Diet / methods
  • Diet / veterinary*
  • Female
  • Lactation / physiology*
  • Weaning