Feeding milk replacer is common practice on many farms, either dairy units for heifer rearing or dairy calf to beef units. There is a wide range of milk powders available each one with their advantages and disadvantages in terms of their nutritional content and cost.

It is important to choose the right one that suits your system best and a bit of research beforehand is always worth spending time doing.

There are a few questions that should be asked before purchasing:

  • Milk replacer vs. whole milk;
  • How much milk replacer should be fed;
  • How soon can milk replacer be fed?;
  • Skim milk vs. whey – what is meant by these two and what are the differences?

Milk replacer vs. whole milk

Teagasc research has shown that calves grow equally as well on milk replacer as they do on whole milk diets. However, this is providing that the milk replacer is formulated correctly, from good quality milk protein sources and that all the feeding instructions are followed.

The first six months of the calf’s life is crucial, it is 8% of its total life but during that time it reaches 25% of its total adult weight. In the case of dairy heifers, sexual maturity is directly linked to the weight of the animal more than age.

Studies have shown that heifer calves will achieve the same weight gain and performance on good quality milk replacer (25 % protein) as on whole milk.

Feeding a high-quality milk replacer can actually improve calf performance above whole milk diets. In trials, calves that received a good quality milk replacer up until weaning at 56 – 63 days were on average 6kg heavier than those fed whole milk.

This weight differential actually continued up until day 70, possibly due to the increased consumption of concentrates right through the rearing phase.

If heifer calves don’t reach their target weights at weaning, studies have shown that in their first lactation they can be back in production by up to 156L.

How much milk replacer should I feed?

All milk replacers are fed on a percentage solids basis, e.g., 10 %, 12.5 % or 15 %. It is very important you follow the manufacturers guidelines when feeding milk replacer.

12.5% is the most common rate milk replacer fed. This equates to 125g of powder in 875ml water to make up 1L of milk. Fed at 6L, the calf should be consuming 750g of powder every day.

The amount of milk fed and concentrate intake determines calf growth rate in the period up to 12 weeks, with the target to get the calf to grow from a birth weight of 40 – 45 kg to about 100kg by 12 weeks of age.

The calf at weaning needs to be consuming at least 1kg of concentrate every day before he can be weaned from milk.

How soon can I feed milk replacer?

Once calves have received adequate amount of colostrum (minimum of 8.5% of its birth weight) within two hours of birth, trials have shown, there is no difference in their weight gain pre or post-weaning compared to calves fed colostrum and four feeds of transition milk before moving onto milk replacer.

This suggests that in a very well managed systems milk replacer can be offered after colostrum feeding. The colostrum 1, 2, 3 rule of thumb must be adhered to in this instance.

Skim vs. whey: What do these mean?

Skim milk is got from whole milk when the fat or cream is removed. The skim milk is then dried and we are left with skim milk powder.

The protein in skim, like whole milk is mainly casein. Casein forms a clot in the abomasum and is digested like whole milk, slowly over time.

In comparison, whey proteins are digested much more quickly and in the absence of casein do not clot in the abomasum. Whey is a by-product from cheese production.

Traditional thinking was that skim is better but whey powders can also perform very well. Calves on whey-based powders can come across hungrier and this encourages them to consume concentrates quicker.

To strike the correct balance between the two is the perfect solution, the extra performance from the skim and also the increased intake of dry feed from the whey.

Both whey and skim are milk proteins, this is a note of importance. Young calves cannot digest vegetable or plant-based proteins so it is vital that when purchasing your milk replacer that you look for a high inclusion rate of these milk proteins.

L-R: Mattie Kennedy Liffey Mills pictured with customers Enda, Mick and Geraldine O’Dea

Liffey Mills customer Mick O’Dea, along with his wife Geraldine and two sons Enda and Darren, rears 500 dairy-bred calves in Ballyroan, Co. Laois.

In order to have these animals ready for slaughter under-24 months the rearing phase of the calf is the most critical time to get right.

“Ever since we started to use Liffey Mills Calf 18 Ration in conjunction with Elvor Performance Milk Replacer we have seen that we can reach target weights at weaning and this follows right through until slaughter,” he said.

Introducing milk powder to bought-in calves

It can be hard to get calves onto milk powder when they have been on whole milk for a period of time.

Many bought calves will have come through marts and this can lead to increased stress and incidence of disease.

Calves can also tend to be dehydrated on arrival to the farm.

Liffey Mills have derived a programme for these such calves that will ensure maximum thrive from your calf with minimum upsets.

Electrolytes, such as Elvor digest can be fed for the first 2 – 3 feeds.

Elvor digest is specially formulated to promote absorption of specific nutrients and to replace water and minerals that are lost during this stressful period.

A transition powder, Adapto can be fed for the following 7 – 14 days.

Adapto offers an excellent way of introducing milk powder to calves without any digestive upsets. It facilitates the development of the intestinal flora, stimulates the immune system and allows a better protection against external aggression.

The follow-on programme includes our own tried and tested Elvor Hi Performance Milk Replacer.

A perfectly balanced skim and whey-based milk powder, Elvor Hi Performance Milk Replacer is 25 % protein and rich in vitamins and minerals.

For more information on the Liffey Mills Milk Replacer range, click here. Alternatively, call: 0505 21477.