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Making the switch to a combination milk replacer

Following disappointing weight gains in some of his calves last year, Warwickshire based dairy farmer, Tim Sinnott, made the decision to replace the whey-based milk powder traditionally fed to calves on his farm with a combination milk replacer, containing skim milk. Making the switch has reinvigorated calf performance, with heifer calves now achieving daily liveweight gains in excess of 0.90kg/day

Tim Sinnott

“In order to get heifers ready for first calving between 22 and 24 months, we know how important it is to get calves off to a good start and to hit daily liveweight gains (DLWGs) of 0.80kg or more, as soon as possible,” explains Tim. “Last summer, we had a batch of calves that were only averaging 0.66kg DLWG, which is well off the mark in terms of what we need our calves to achieve, so we knew that some changes had to be made.

“We discussed the issue with our ForFarmers youngstock specialist, Amy Wilson, and she recommended moving the calves on to a combination milk replacer, that contains skim milk and whey. The hope was that the new milk replacer would provide a slower release of energy and be kinder to the calves’ digestive system. The results have been excellent, with one batch of 34 calves we weighed in November – and averaging 128 days old - recording average DLWGs from birth of 0.97kg.” 

A dedicated calf programme

Tim Sinnott - calf with milk replacer

Tim runs an autumn block calving herd, milking 225 cows, three times a day, with cows achieving average yields of 13,000 litres. Calving takes place from July through to November, with 100 of the highest genetically ranked cows and heifers selected for service with sexed semen to produce the replacements required in the herd. 

“When calves are born, they receive three litres of high-quality colostrum as soon as possible and are housed in large, straw bedded pens,” explains Tim. “Calves then start following a specific calf feeding protocol put together with help from ForFarmers and at four days old, move from a Wydale feeder on to our Forster Technik automated calf feeder. 

“The first phase of the programme lasts seven days, with each calf starting at 6 litres of milk, per day and gradually increasing to 8 litres – with a minimum intake of 1.5 litres and maximum of 2 litres set per feed. Up to 35 days old, calves continue on 8 litres, with a minimum intake of 2 litres per feed and maximum of 2.5 litres. By 49 days, we can increase these limits to a minimum of 2.5 litres and maximum of 3 litres per feed.” 


Weaning takes place gradually over a three-week period, starting when a calf is six weeks old.  “We have opted for a tapered weaning and are reducing calf milk intakes from 8 to 6 litres between week six and seven, before dropping to 3 litres over the course of week seven,” continues Tim. “We then hold at 3 litres of feeding for the duration of week eight to ensure that calves are definitely consuming 3 litres of milk in a single feed. By week nine, the aim is to have calves successfully weaned.”

“All calves are provided with access to ad-lib VITA Start Extra, which is a calf nut rather than a pellet, during the pre-weaning and immediate post-weaning phase, before transitioning at three months of age on to 3-4kg of VITA Heifer 18% protein nuts, which is fed alongside ad-lib straw and grass silage.” 

The importance of weighing your calves

All calves are regularly weighed on Tim’s farm, and it was disappointing weighing results last August that prompted Tim and Amy to re-examine calf feeding. 

“It was clear that some of the calves were suffering from digestive upsets, and this went a long way to explaining why average DLWGs were only at 0.66kg,” says Amy. “I analysed the result before concluding that the whey-based milk powder that was then being used might not be best suited for the farm’s requirements at the time. I suggested changing to VITAMILK Rearer, which is a combination milk replacer, fed at a rate of 180g per litre of milk.  

VITAMILK Rearer has a 20% skim milk content, with 17% highly digestible fat.  A solely whey-based milk replacer has a short pre-digestion period of between 1-2 hours in the abomasum, before moving to the small intestine, which can put quite a lot of stress on a calf’s digestive system. A skim milk replacer provides a slow-release energy source that takes around 12 hours to leave a calf’s abomasum, so it is more forgiving on a calf’s digestive system, especially if they are facing any health challenges.” 

Increased performance and alignment with calving goals

Tim’s calves are now performing well on the new milk replacer and he is happy to see that growth rates are now back on track, supporting the end target of heifers calving down at between 22-24 months. 

“We are part of the ForFarmers Target 24 VITA Heifer Programme, so have our youngstock weighed regularly to ensure that we are on track to get heifers at the right size and stature for early first calving,” concludes Tim. “Weighing results recorded in November looked very promising, with one batch of calves achieving average DLWG from birth of 0.97kg and 1.22kg compared to their previous months weigh in. Another batch of 43 calves achieved average DLWG from birth of 0.88kg.

“On the farm, the average age for heifers to calve is 23.4 months, and we don’t want a slip in calf performance jeopardising that figure, so it is good to have the calves back performing well.”

Tim Sinnott's calves

For more information

To find out more about our VITA range, feeding protocols or Target 24 please speak to your local ForFarmers Account Manager or follow the link below:

Contact a Youngstock Specialist