Dairy calves must be fed appropriately to meet their nutritional needs, supporting optimal growth and development to achieve the recommended target age at first calving (AFC) of 24 months. Traditional restricted milk feeding practices suppress growth, contribute to negative welfare states and may result in malnutrition and immunosuppression. Despite more recent recommendations to increase milk allowances for pre-weaned calves, restricted feeding remains a common practice. This study explored the rationales behind the calf feeding protocols used by dairy farmers in England. Forty qualitative interviews (26 farmers, 14 advisors) were conducted between May 2016 and June 2017, transcribed in full, then coded into themes. Results indicate that a variety of calf feeding regimes are used on farms, largely determined by farmers’ attitudes regarding ease of management and the wellbeing of calves. Advisors were concerned about widespread underfeeding of calves, which may be partially due to insufficiently clear recommendations for calf milk replacer (CMR) feeding rates. There was also evidence of uncertainty regarding best practices for weaning calves. Collaboration between academic research and industry is essential to establish a consensus on calf feeding standards which support physiological function, facilitate weaning, support growth targets and ensure calf health and welfare is protected.
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