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Feeding calves: milk replacer or whole milk?

Sector News Sector News9-3-2020
Afbeelding: Webp.net-resizeimage (44)

Heifer calves are the future of your dairy herd and giving them the best start in life is a key focus for all dairy producers. Avoiding growth checks, ensuring optimal health and hitting key growth targets are vital to ensure that heifers are ready for first calving at 22-24 months of age. Good calf nutrition plays a vital role in supporting calf performance and the debate continues as to which feed source is best for young calves; cow’s milk or milk replacer? 

Many producers have previously viewed the use of whole milk as the logical choice of calf feed (especially during periods of low milk price) with the knowledge that it is a natural and healthy product, that is also easy to feed and therefore reduces labour commitments. For some systems the use of whole milk may continue to be the best option, but for many, milk replacer is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative. 

Comparison of whole milk/quality milk replacer in terms of energy supply and optimum feed rates:

  Quality Milk Replacer

Whole Milk (3.1%/3.5%)

Growth 2.0 mj/100g 2.7 mj/litre
Maintenance Requirements 400g 3.0 litres
Maintenance + Growth Requirements 900g (6 litres @ 150g/litre) 6.5 litres

Things to consider when feeding whole milk

Health/disease challenges:
Feeding whole milk can result is calves being infected with diseases, such as Johne’s, that afflicted cows from which the milk was obtained. Waste milk feeding can also lead to the potential spread of E.coli from cow to calf. Both of these scenarios can result in significant long- and short-term harm to calf health, growth rates, and performance. 

A consistent diet helps maintain optimum cow performance and calves are no different; with their immature digestive system making them particularly vulnerable to inconsistencies in the diet inhibiting feed utilisation. Whole milk is likely to change in nutritional consistency on a near daily basis, and this can contribute to possible stomach upsets and resultant growth checks in calves. 

Antibiotic resistance: 
While the short-term effect of calves ingesting milk containing antibiotic taint can be damage to intestinal flora and resultant fall in feed utilisation, this early exposure can also increase a calf’s chance of developing resistance to certain strains of antibiotics. This has serious implications on cow health and performance later in life.

Disadvantages of feeding whole milk

Mineral deficiency 

Often lacking in vitamins essential to the support of calf health and performance. These include magnesium, copper, manganese and zinc.

Vitamin deficiency Shortage of various vitamins, such as vitamin A and D, which encourage growth
and vigour. 
Too sweet Calf that are fed cow’s milk can be more difficult to wean.
Mastitis risk Waste milk is often mastistic milk (high SCC milk) and recent studies suggest
that feeding mastistic milk to a dairy calf can result in increased incidence of
mastitis in later life.  
Too cold for bucket feeding

This can have a negative effect on a calf’s oesophageal groove reflex (diverting
milk away from rumen into the abomasum), resulting in rumen drinking or bloat. 

Traces of antibiotics
in milk 
As well as damaging a calf’s intestinal flora, this can lead to the future development
of microbial resistance to certain strains of antibiotic.   
Possible transmission of disease Feeding waste milk can result in the passing of disease (such as Johne’s) and
E. coli to calves; damaging short- and long-term performance. 

Calf Milk Replacer

Afbeelding: Milk Replacer

High quality milk replacers are specially formulated to promote optimum calf performance and have been shown to improve early calf growth rates compared to whole milk.

However, to ensure the best results, it is vital that milk replacer is fed accurately and that the replacer used is of a high quality.

Inaccurate mixing:
Getting ratios and quantities of milk replacer incorrect and failing to thoroughly mix replacer with water can significantly reduce replacer’s effectiveness and damage calf growth rates/health. 

Solution: Have clear weighing and mixing protocols displayed in calf feed preparation areas and demonstrate protocols to all members of staff. Also provide and maintain accurate measuring equipment, such as electronic scales.  

Increased labour requirements:
Opening packaging, weighing, mixing and distributing CMR is a more time-consuming process compared to feeding out liquid milk. 

Solution: Store CMR close to the feed preparation area and have a dedicated member(s) of staff deal with calf feeding, to improve familiarity with the process and speed up preparation and reduce feeding time. 

Higher cost compared to whole milk:
During periods of lower milk prices, a litre of milk made with CMR can be a more expensive compared to a litre of whole milk. 

Solution: When considering costs, as well as the up-front price take into account the positive nutritional advantages of CMR and the knock-on effect these can have on early development, growth rates and later cow performance. 

For more information

To get more advice on feeding milk replacer or help in deciding which is the best feeding option to implement on your farm, please contact your local ForFarmers youngstock specialist.