Don’t take milk replacer label at face value

Feed costs pre-weaning is the most expensive period in an animal’s life and producers are spending significant sums of money. It is therefore important to know what’s in the calf milk replacer (CMR) and its feed value.

In order to choose the right CMR, which will support successful calf growth and development cost-effectively, Cargill calf and heifer specialist, Bianca Theeruth, highlights the required information needed to evaluate a CMR label.

To evaluate and compare products, and to make a sound buying decision, more information is required above what is provided on the CMR label.

“The label provides only basic information; therefore, I would encourage producers not to take this at face value but to ask your CMR supplier for more details about the ingredients in the CMR,” said Theeruth.

Understanding the label

  1. Check the basic information on the label. Constituent levels should fall within those listed in table 1 (see below).
  2. Determine whether the CMR is skim-based or whey-based. If whey powder is the first ingredient listed, then the CMR is whey-based and vice versa for a skim-based CMR.
  3. The type of CMR required will depend on your rearing system, disease risk and rearing objectives.
  4. In the case of skim-based CMR, find out the inclusion rate of the skim milk or skim derivatives, as this will determine clotting ability. Note, skim derivatives can include butter milk, whole milk powder and casein.
  5. Skim derivatives are usually cheaper, but it is important to know the quality and processing method of these derivatives. These factors can affect feeding characteristics and nutritional value.
  6. CMR that include skim milk powder are considered premium products.
Table 1: Label inclusion range of key constituents in a CMR

According to Theeruth, “this information won’t be found on the label, but it will affect how the product performs, its suitability to your system and its value for money”.

According to Theeruth, all ingredients should be high quality, free from anti-nutritional factors and correctly processed. Crude protein, crude fat, crude fibre and crude ash are indicators of the CMR nutritional quality.


Protein provides essential amino acids for tissue synthesis required for lean structural growth. The amount contained in the CMR and its source should be evaluated.

Calves have a requirement for specific amino acids for muscle growth and optimal immune system function; therefore, a quality CMR should be formulated specifically to meet the amino acid requirements.

Vegetable protein sources can be used successfully as an economic alternative to dairy protein sources in CMR. They are listed on the label as, for example, hydrolysed wheat gluten, soya protein concentrate and pea protein.

Vegetable proteins contribute to the fibre content in a CMR, whereas dairy proteins do not contain any fibre. Note, a CMR with a zero fibre content could have up to 0.04% vegetable protein, as values are rounded down if below 0.05% and up to the nearest 0.1% if above 0.05%.

Fats and oils

Fats, oils and lactose in a CMR fill the frame and make up the energy fragment of a CMR. They provide a concentrated energy source; 2.25 times that of carbohydrates. They also provide essential fatty acids and are important in maintaining a shiny coat.

Fats in a CMR are plant based from sources such as palm, coconut, rapeseed and soya oil. These will be listed on the label. Palm and coconut oil are the most commonly used in a CMR, as they have similar digestibility to milk fat (+/- 96 %).


The ash content in a CMR represents the overall level of minerals in the product and is listed as a percentage of total composition on the label.

Ash in a CMR is comprised mostly of ions of sodium, potassium, chloride and trace minerals that come from whey or skim ingredients. Ash is not added to as fillers; it is a natural and variable component based on ingredients and the CMR formula. These will determine the ash content.


Fibre quoted on the CMR label is related to the amount of vegetable protein, such as soya or wheat. Fibre content will vary depending on the sources and is not a reflection of the CMR quality.

Some plant protein sources, such as soya protein products, contain a variety of anti-nutritional factors that decrease their digestibility. However, recent advancements in processing have improved the quality of soya protein products and they can be well utilised at moderate inclusion levels.

Further information

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