“False economy” Feeding Cheap Raw Materials

False Economy

Calf milk powder is commonly fed to a calf during the period of its life when it relies on receiving the nourishment it needs for growth and immunity from milk.

The decline in UK milk prices has seen a shift in the quality of milk powder fed to dairy heifers in an attempt to achieve parity between the price of the two and make it justifiable to continue feeding milk replacer.

Unfortunately, this has, in most cases been done without a clear understanding of what is actually in the powder being mixed. As a result many calves and rearing systems are being compromised.

In some cases current and future heifer performance will be compromised more than the saving made from the cheaper milk powder. Although it will help cash flow in the short term it will incur massive hidden cost to the producer in the long term.

Focusing on the management of dairy heifers during the first 10-12 weeks is essential if they are going to calve at 22-24 months of age. Feeding young dairy calves properly is critical to raising replacements.

During the first two months of life a dairy calf will function predominantly as a monogastric and after two months of age they begin to function more like a fully-fledged ruminant. Feed conversion efficiency is several times higher in the young monogastric calf than a ruminating calf, meaning that it is the most cost effective time to feed the calf well using the highest quality milk powder during those first few weeks.

Performance of the calf during this period in terms of growth rate and health will dictate its future performance. In essence, it is this crucial period in the animal’s life where the engine is being built to drive the future performance of the animal when she enters the milking parlour.

The problem is, we must develop this animal well or risk having a faulty engine!

It’s essential to look at what and how we are feeding our calves if we want to get the most out of them. During the first few weeks of life the rumen, reticulum and omasum of the calf are relatively small in size and are quite inactive when compared to the abomasum, also known as the true stomach.

For this reason, we need to treat them as calves, and not ‘baby cows’ they have special requirements for protein, energy and vitamins.

Milk PowdersWynngold Bloom

We should only opt to use the best milk powder for our replacements, it’s not enough to simply look at the % of protein and % of oil stated on the bag, it is the origins of the proteins and fats that are crucial.

For example, new born calves cannot utilise vegetable protein before their rumen is functional as they have limited digestive enzymes. Calves are also limited by the type of fat that they can utilise, they can digest saturated fats, so the best fats to look out for in a milk replacer are Palm and Coconut oil, any oils other than these are increasingly less digestible.

Following the initial colostrum feeds, use a milk replacer that contains milk proteins for maximum digestion, feeding a milk replacer with proteins such as soya will limit the growth of the animal as they are less digestible.

A calf’s metabolic rate (rate at which energy is used) is at its greatest during the first two weeks of life. It is therefore important that calves have adequate energy from sources that they can easily utilise. The main sources of energy for new born calves should be derived primarily from lactose and milk fat.

Energy can be the most limiting factor to a calf’s growth, even more so in winter months when more energy is utilised for maintenance rather than growth. This can have a huge impact on growth rates.

Once you have established the quality of raw materials in your milk replacer you can then look into the specification levels in terms of protein, oils and vitamins which determine the powder that suits your specific needs. Your needs should be based on what is required to achieve your goal – the production of heifers that improve the future performance of your herd.

Putting the right fuel in the tank gives you a better chance of success, but remember, there are other factors that need to be considered such as colostrum, cleanliness, comfort and consistency if your goal is going to be achieved efficiently, successfully and cost effectively.

Dairy heifer calves should be fed on a high quality powder containing 23-26% protein this will promote skeletal and muscle growth. Oil levels of 16-20% will provide enough energy for the calf to grow after maintenance is satisfied and fulfil its potential growth rate. Feed rates of up to 1 kg of CMR per day can be fed to achieve growth rates of 0.8 kg.

Vitamin E is also very important and often overlooked when assessing a calf milk powder. Vitamin E is an anti-oxidant.  After ensuring that the calf receives adequate energy to power the immune system, increasing the level of Vitamin E is one of the best ways to help the immune system develop, function, and become strong enough to fight the various diseases that calves are exposed to.

Growth rates are accelerated when the immune system is functioning efficiently quite simply because the calf is healthier and converting more of its energy intake into growth.

Decisions made today regarding the rearing of the next generation of herd replacements will potentially impact your herd’s performance for many years in the future. Heifer calves which fail to reach their potential as calves will take longer to get in calf, have less chance of getting in calf, calve down older, get in-calf less efficiently in their first lactation and have a shorter productive life.

Compromising heifer calf performance on the basis of reducing costs even in these challenging times needs careful consideration. Be careful not to trip over the dollar to pick up the dime.


Tom Stephenson

Dairy Specialist

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