Calf Feeding Options to Control Costs

By Hugh Chester-Jones, Animal Scientist, University of Minnesota, Dairy Extension.
calendar icon 25 October 2007
clock icon 4 minute read

In the last edition of Dairy Star under U of M Dairy Connection, Jim Paulson wrote “Trim Costs, Not Performance” while looking at the costs of feeding calves with higher milk replacer prices. In this article, I would like to continue to discuss those calf feeding cost issues with a focus on alternative plant proteins sources in milk replacers and aspects of feeding waste milk.

How should one respond to these price increases? First, we must remember that calves’ nutrient requirements have not changed and they require large quantities of high quality energy and protein for optimal growth. As calf feed costs have increased, so have the value of calves with day-old calves selling for more than $500. At these high prices, a saving of $50 in calf rearing costs can rapidly be offset by increased illness or death of one calf. A recent 2007 paper by Robert James and Chase Scott from Virginia Tech emphasized that the “economics of a calf rearing program should be measured in terms of cost per pound of gain and total cost to rear calves to a given weight/age, including mortality”.

Waste milk - James and Scott noted that there is an increased interest in use of waste raw milk from fresh cows but warned of the risks including antibiotic residues, potential pathogens (e.g., Johne’s, BVD, Staph and E. coli etc.), and variation in nutrient content and supply. On-farm pasteurizers are commercially available to treat the volumes of waste milk found on dairy farms or calf raising operations but they require a significant investment in equipment and facilities, labor and supervision. Waste milk must be refrigerated if not pasteurized immediately after milking. Allowing it to warm to room temperature results in rapid bacterial growth and significant risk of digestive upsets. Young calves react poorly to high levels of undesirable bacteria.

One of the challenges is the large fluctuations in daily supply of waste milk. Relationships of number of cows to produce waste milk required for a given number of calves fed is shown in the table adapted from James and Scott (2007).

  Number of calves fed/day
25 50 75 100
Daily feed rate Waste milk/ cow daily Number of cows needed
4 qt 40 lb 6 11 16 22
4 qt 60 lb 4 7 11 14
6 qt 40 lb 8 16 24 32
6 qt 60 lb 6 11 16 22

They observed that to help balance calf feeding needs, milk replacer or whey protein solids can be added to supplement waste milk supply. Other strategies to maintain some consistency with good pasteurizer management is to start on pasteurized milk then switch to milk replacer at greater than 3 weeks of age or vice versa.

Partially replacing milk protein with plant protein sources -- The concern has been the ability of the young calf to properly digest plant proteins and indications of negative affects on calf health and growth. A suggested compromise would be to feed milk replacers with soy or wheat proteins only to calves over 4 weeks of age as older calves would be better able to digest plant proteins. Viable plant protein sources used in calf milk replacer formulations are wheat gluten and soy protein concentrate.

In recent research conducted at the Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca, calves at 2 to 4 days of age for a 56-day trial (pre-weaning of 42 days and post weaning 43 to 56 days) were fed an all-milk protein 20:20 milk replacer or partially replacing the milk protein with 50% wheat gluten, 50% soy protein concentrate, 30% wheat gluten, or a mixture of 25% soy protein concentrate and 25% wheat gluten. Milk replacers were fed at 1.25 pounds of powder daily, reconstituted with water (12.5% solids) in 2 equal feedings for 35 days and half this amount once a day until weaning at 42 days. All calves were fed an 18% protein texturized calf starter free choice.

Pre-weaning and overall 56-day gain was similar for calves fed alternative proteins sources averaging 1.33 and 1.53 lb/day, respectively. Calves fed all-milk protein milk replacer had 13.6% and 11% higher pre-weaning (1.54 lb/day) and overall (1.72 lb/day) gains compared to the other calf groups. The study supported the premise that with good quality calves, plant protein sources as partial replacement for milk protein and balanced for amino acids can potentially be a cost savings.

Wean calves early. It costs more than $1.50/day to feed even the lowest quality milk replacer in limited amounts. Most calves can be weaned by 6 weeks or sooner when they are eating at least 1.5 to 2.0 pounds of calf starter per day. Early weaning requires good calf health management and an abundant supply of water. Each extra week of milk or milk replacer feeding adds more than $10 to the cost of rearing the calf. Feed the highest quality milk replacer to calves during the first 3 to 4 weeks of life as it is the main source of nutrients at the same time encourage calf starter intake.

August 2007

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