Elevated levels of pre-weaning nutrition increase first lactation fat and protein corrected milk production

Many researchers have shown the positive effects of elevated levels of pre-weaning nutrition in dairy calves on performance during the first lactation[1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13]. In many of these trials, only a certain period in the life of a dairy calf or cow was studied. The Kempenshof research programme follows two groups of calves during their entire productive life. It started in 2014 and is still continuing today. Results of the first lactation are presented in this article.

Key takeaways from the research

  • Holstein dairy calves in the Kempenshof LifeStart trial are included immediately after they are born and are followed during their entire productive life
  • A LifeStart calf feeding schedule resulted in an increase of pre-weaning growth of 155 g/day
  • This difference in pre-weaning growth of calves resulted in production of 400 litres of additional fat and protein corrected milk production during the first lactation
  • The production of extra milk found in our study is likely to result from a difference in energy partitioning.

Material and methods

Two groups of 43 Holstein dairy calves were included in the study. Both groups were blocked by colostrum, parity and season after pairs of calves were fed the same amounts of cow colostrum from the same dam. From day 4 onwards, all calves had ad libitum access to water, calf starter feed and straw. Calves were weaned at 56 days of age and moved to group housing from day 70 onwards. The group following the LifeStart calf rearing programme was fed 8 litres of calf milk replacer per day whereas the controls were fed 4 litres per day. Both groups were fed at a concentration of 150 g/l.


Calves in the LifeStart calf rearing programme had a significantly higher bodyweight from day 7 onwards. The difference in ADG was 155 g/d at weaning and 123 g/day at day 70.

The LifeStart calf feeding schedule resulted in an average increase in production of fat corrected milk in the first lactation of 400 litres (See figure 1 and table 1). Significant differences in both the amount of fat and protein correct milk and the kilograms of fat produced per day were found (see table 1).

Figure 1: Fat and protein corrected milk yield in the first lactation in kg/day in Holstein dairy heifers fed according to a LifeStart feeding schedule compared to heifers fed a restricted feeding schedule.

First lactation LifeStart Conventional p-value
Dry-matter intake, kg/d 19.7 19.0 0.01
Milk production (FPCM), kg/d 30.8 29.9 0.01
   Fat, g/d 1296 1213 < 0.01
   Protein, g/d 995 996 0.95
   Lactose, g/d 1363 1368 0.86
Body weight, kg 585 593 0.44
Body condition score, 1-5 scale 3.21 3.30 < 0.01

Table 1: milk production parameters in first lactation in Holstein dairy heifers raised with a LifeStart feeding schedule compared to dairy cows raised with a restricted feeding schedule.

Body Condition Score throughout the entire lactation was lower in the LifeStart cows as compared to the controls (see table 1). Feed intake during first lactation was however higher in the LifeStart group (see table 1).

Discussion and conclusion

The Holstein dairy calves in the LifeStart calf rearing programme had an increase in pre-weaning average daily gain of 155 gram/day. Other authors found increases in pre-weaning ADG ranging from 70 to 355 gram/day in calves fed elevated levels of liquid feeding prior to weaning[1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11]. As a result of this increase in ADG, milk production in the first lactation increased significantly. This finding is in line with those of other authors that studied the effect of elevated levels of pre-weaning nutrition on future milk production of dairy heifers[1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11]. With the exception of 1 study by Morisson et al[3], in which no effect on milk production was found, elevated planes of nutrition resulted in an additional milk production during the first lactation ranging from 342 to 1,332 kg. Feed intake and Body Condition Score from animals in the LifeStart trial suggest that the increase in milk production found in our study is likely to result from a difference in energy partitioning.


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