Milk replacers can helpboost calf performance

Feeding more milk replacer more frequently in a calf’s early life is a win-win for animal performance and producers’ bottom lines, said a dairy expert.

“I think the key for dairy producers is to make sure that they get the sufficient volume into the animals,” said Chris Luby from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan.

Luby said general feeding guidelines used to suggest about 10 percent body weight per day, but research using accelerated feeding systems have shown calves are consuming significantly more milk replacer.

“If we look at intensified feeding regimes, they may be feeding up to 20 percent body weight. It’s changing quickly mainly because people are seeing if we feed more to young calves, they do produce more milk when they grow up to become a lactating cows,” said the veterinarian.

“The milk replacer, you’re feeding an extra couple of litres every day for the first eight weeks of life, and you’ll get significantly more milk during the first lactation. The effect lasts about two years.”

Besides improved biosecurity with reduced risk of pathogens being transmitted, good quality milk replacers also improve calf growth and performance.

“Should be as good as you get with whole milk and in some cases, depending on the dairy, you might get better performance with a good milk replacer,” he said.

He said the dairy world does a good job of calving year round to maintain a constant supply of milk, but production varies depending on lactation.

“Between 45 and 90 days in lactation they peak in milk production. And then milk production starts to tail off slowly after that and so we try and have cows calving consistently through the year so you get a consistent milk supply through the year,” he said.

The main decision maker for whether or not to use a milk replacer compared to natural milk is economic.

“How much is the milk replacer going to cost compared to withholding that whole milk from the bulk tank,” he said.

He said the next factor is deciding the type and kind of milk replacer and recommends producers collaborate with a nutritionist and veterinarian to make the selection.

“The protein in milk replacer is a big thing that we look at for the quality of the milk replacer and we used to think that plant versus milk protein is the key. There has been some alternative research, though, and there is some plant-based proteins that are better than others. If the protein source is processed from milk replacer, and there’s research in its favour, then even if it’s a plant protein it’s probably going to work quite nicely,” he said.

Luby said research studies continue to find different characteristics and strategies.

“One of the concerns I have is that once we get below three weeks of age, really young calves don’t seem to respond as well to non-milk proteins. I think I’m supported by the research is that it’s preferred that we use milk proteins rather than plant proteins for really young calves,” he said.

“Good quality milk replacer that’s containing whey protein, which is basically milk protein, the calves are probably not going to notice the difference (to natural milk) and early on in life will drink up to 20 percent of their body weight each day.”

Most producers are feeding their calves from bottles, however robotic feeders are coming.

“Computer feeding stations, which are basically automated feeding stations, is where the milk replacer is mixed in advance and the calves can come up and choose to drink how much they want,” he said.

And with many calves being born in frigid temperatures, it’s important that calves consume enough in cold weather to keep them warm.

“There’s a great quote by a colleague of one of my mentors. He said a dry, fuzzy calf with a full belly is very resilient.”

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