"Calf-Raising Basics"
Carl Smith
Dairy Manufacturers, Inc.

What are the three main reasons for using a milk replacer?

Economics. Milk replacers are less expensive to feed than whole milk from the dairy. They cost on average $35.00\50 lb bag, or $0.70/lb. One pound of dry milk replacer makes 1 gallon of reconstituted milk replacer. One gallon of milk (and therefore milk replacer) weighs approximately 8.6 lb/gal. X 100. Therefore reconstituted milk replacer costs $8.14/hundred lb ($0.70/ 8.6 lb/gal.) X 100). Whole milk at the dairy would have to be worth less than $8.14/cwt (hundred weight) to be more economically feasible to feed than reconstituted milk replacer.

Looked at another way, one 50 lb. bag of milk replacer will raise a calf to 6 weeks of age. It takes 400 pounds of whole milk out of the tank to do the same thing. If that milk is selling for $19 per cwt, then that 400 pounds of milk is worth $76 to the dairyman. If the retail price of milk replacer is $40 per 50 lb. bag, then the dairy producer can pocket the difference of $36 that he or she saves by selling the milk and buying milk replacer.

Consistency and Uniformity. The composition of whole milk varies depending on

  • the proportion of mature cows versus heifers being milked
  • the ration being fed to the milking herd
  • the weather conditions (causing heat stress, for example)
  • the proportion of non-Holsteins being milked (Jerseys produce milk with higher levels of fat and protein)
  • the somatic cell count and bacterial count, which vary depending upon sanitation, milking conditions, age of cows, and other factors
  • the fat separation in whole milk, which increases the possibility of variation in fat content

Milk replacers should have uniform consistency and nutritional content and have a low bacterial count.

Nutritional content. Whole milk does not contain the level of vitamins and minerals, such as iron and B vitamins, that have been added to high-quality milk replacers. High-quality milk replacers should have a low bacterial count, unlike whole milk from the dairy, which may have a significantly higher bacterial count. Whole milk does not contain any of the feed additives that may be included in commercial milk replacers.

How important are water quality, water temperature, and mixing environment?

Milk replacers are powder products and must be re-hydrated; therefore, water is an important issue to consider. Because a significant amount of water needs to be added, the quality of the water should be as high as possible. If there is a question about the quality of the water, then producers should boil it before use.

Producers should follow these guidelines when mixing a milk replacer:

  • set water temperature between 105-110 F
  • add powder to water, not water to powder
  • sprinkle the powder into the water
  • mix with a wire whisk
  • mix in a large container; then transfer into individual bottles
  • acidify or buffer to correct scummy or greasy milk, which may be due to pH

What are the differences in protein components: Milk-Product-Related Protein vs. Plasma Protein vs. Soy Protein (Vegetable)?

Milk replacers are designed as a substitute for cow's milk. Naturally then, the best proteins to have in a milk replacer are milk proteins. Milk proteins are divided into two classes: casein proteins and whey proteins. The more casein proteins a milk replacer contains, the better the quality. The highest quality milk replacers on the market are comprised of milk proteins, and they are also the most expensive. Alternate proteins such as plasma, soy wheat, blood cells, etc., have been incorporated into some milk replacers to cut costs. These alternate protein sources do have a place in feeding calves, but producers need to understand these proteins' role for optimum results.

What's the first step? What is necessary for working with milk replacers?

Facilities. The calf-raising facility can be simple or elaborate. It may be as simple as a single wire panel bent and tied in a circle to contain the calf or an elaborate system of crates or hutches in a temperature-controlled building. The level of sophistication does not matter as long as it fits the needs and budget of the producer. The producer should choose a location that is well drained and takes advantage of prevailing winds and natural shade if possible.

Equipment. The feeding equipment is a matter of personal preference. Most producers use bottles and nipples, but bucket-feeding works as well. Whichever method is used, the containers should be made of a material that is easily cleaned. Experience has shown that dirty feeding equipment is a major source of trouble on a calf ranch. The feeding and mixing equipment should be washed in clean, hot, soapy water and rinsed in clean, hot water.

Close attention to the cleanliness of the mixing and feeding equipment, and the pens, crates, or hutches will go a long way toward preventing stress and sickness in the calves.

Calf Preparation. Producers should follow these guidelines for receiving and starting calves on milk replacers:

  • ear tag all calves (record calf number)--heifers in the right ear, bulls in the left ear
  • weigh and record weights (using the chart below)
  • based on veterinarian's advice, administer antibiotic injections for preventing scours and vaccinations for Clostridium, Haemophilus, Pasturella, Multocida, IBR/BVD, and Rota-Corona virus
  • treat navel with iodine spray
  • paste dehorn all horned calves at four weeks old

Producers should follow these guidelines at weaning:

  • weigh and record weights (using the chart below)
  • band castrate bull calves
  • implant steer calves with Ralgro

Calf Records

Calf # Date Weight End Date Weaned Weight Remarks

Why is feeding milk replacers better than feeding hospital string milk or regular milk?

"Hospital milk" is milk not suitable for human consumption due to high bacterial counts (mastitis milk) or antibiotics, or it may contain blood or foreign matter. If this milk is not suitable for humans, it is certainly not suitable for a newborn calf that has just been exposed to the stress and trauma of birth and has a limited ability to fight off infections. High-bacteria-count milk actually inoculates the calf with bacteria that may be detrimental to its health. If antibiotics are present in the milk, they may not be the type or in the appropriate form to benefit the calf. They may also be a type of antibiotic that could actually deter the active microflora's developing in the calf's developing rumen.

Producers should not feed whole milk for the previously mentioned reasons: the economics involved, the consistency and uniformity, and the nutritional aspects.

What is the biggest mistake producers make in feeding milk replacers?

Successfully raising baby calves is an art. When things go wrong, it is only human to look for someone or something to blame besides oneself. However, in looking at calf ranches from 5 to 5000 head, I have found management to be the limiting factor in most cases involving deaths in the herd. Calves will not raise themselves; they require intense supervision in the first few weeks of life. After a calf has reached three to four weeks old, the producer may relax a bit, but he or she must remain vigilant to notice any changes in the calves, their surroundings, or their rations.

In other cases, deaths are due to some outside factor that no one can control. This may take the form of an infectious disease that affects all the animals (babies to adults) on the ranch or dairy. For instance, on a dairy farm this may manifest itself as a loss of milk production in the milking herd and a rise in death loss of the calf operation for no apparent reason. Most of the time, the disease will have run its course and things will have returned to normal before the producer can find the cause.

How should colostrum be fed and saved?

Calves are born with very little natural immunity. Their immediate immunity is achieved through consuming colostrum, which contains immunoglobulins that are essential for calves to develop immunity against disease organisms. The calf's ability to absorb immunoglobulins rapidly decreases with time after birth. For this reason, it is important that the calf receive colostrum within 15 minutes of birth. If colostrum is bottle fed, the calf should consume three-four pounds from the time of its birth to four hours old.

From 15 to 16 hours old, the calf should be fed an additional eight-nine pounds in divided feedings. The second and third days of age, it should consume six-eight pounds of colostrum in divided feedings. The fourth day feedings should be a 50/50 blend of colostrum and high-quality milk replacer. If the calf is allowed to nurse the cow for the first three days of life, the producer should allow it to consume all that it desires, as this is the preferred way for a calf to receive its colostrum.

If for some reason the producer cannot supply the calf with colostrum from its own mother (she may have milk fever, mastitis, etc.), the producer can keep a supply on hand. Colostrum can be preserved in one of the following ways:

  • freeze in a conventional freezer (the most effective method)
  • scour by fermenting the colostrum, preferably in an oxygen-limiting environment
  • directly acidify the colostrum with a mild organic acid

Colostrum from mature cows is superior to that from heifers because it contains higher levels of immunoglobulins. Therefore, calves from heifers should be fed frozen colostrum from mature cows, not only because of the higher levels of immunoglobulins, but also because these calves are usually smaller and weaker than those born to mature cows and consequently need the immunity even more.

How can scours be avoided?

Scours is the most common cause of death in calves. Be alert to any change in appearance of your calves because intensive management can make the difference in success or failure. Listlessness, runny nose, weepy eyes, etc. should be "red flags" to the calf producer. Early diagnosis and treatment of the problem is crucial to the health of the calves. Using proper antibiotics and electrolytes will avert a crisis and save the producer money.

What are probiotics (direct-fed microbials) and why should a producer consider using them?

Upcoming changes in the regulations governing the use of medications in feed should cause the producer to consider revising established practices. Changes in these regulations will soon reduce medication usage levels to such small amounts as to have no effect on an animalís health or rate of gain. Fortunately, producers have a new tool available to them to make up for the loss of antibiotics. This new tool is beneficial bacteria or probiotics. Probiotics have been around for several years, but we are just now learning how to maximize their benefits. Research indicates that the benefits derived from using probiotics will far surpass any benefits derived from antibiotics that were added to feeds for so many years. Probiotic therapy is based on prevention, rather than treatment. If a young animal is never stressed by disease, all the animalís energy is used in growth and development.

Bacteria are divided into two groups: pathogens and beneficials. Pathogenic bacteria are disease-producing bacteria and are responsible for many diseases such as bacterial enteritis (scours) that plague the calf producer. As the name implies, beneficial or probiotic bacteria are helpful. Probiotic bacteria improve the palatability of the feed, stimulate the animalís appetite, stimulate rumen function, and enhance the growth of naturally occurring beneficial bacteria in the animalís gastro-intestinal tract. Research indicates that beneficials and pathogens compete for attachment sites in the animalís gastro-intestinal tract. By adding probiotics to the milk replacer, we greatly increase the number of naturally occurring beneficial bacteria available. This in turn provides fewer sites for pathogenic attachment, so the pathogens pass harmlessly through the system.