Current market conditions have once again led to a steep increase in the cost of milk replacer powder over the past three to four months. Whey protein and lard prices are the primary drivers of the increased cost, but the uptrend of milk replacer prices has rightfully coincided with significant increases in fluid milk price as well.
Benefits of Milk Replacer
When looking at ways to reduce calf feed costs, do not forget that the use of milk replacer is still a sound management practice for anyone raising calves. The benefits of feeding milk replacer include:
- Biosecurity – Prevent feeding pathogenic organisms that may be present in saleable or waste milk.
- Consistency – High-quality milk replacer is the same bag-to-bag and batch-to-batch.
- Nutritionally balanced – Protein, fat, vitamins and minerals are balanced for optimal growth.
- Simple – No extra equipment and expense is needed to support the simple process of mixing and feeding milk replacer.
Controlling Liquid Feed Costs in Periods of High Milk Replacer Prices
During high milk replacer prices, it is common for calf raisers to consider ways to reduce milk replacer costs. Good growth and health are still the goals no matter what, so be sure to consider what impact the change in your milk replacer feeding program will have. Considering the mounting evidence that shows greater preweaning growth rates result in greater first lactation milk yield, it is imperative that any adjustment to the feeding program maintains calf growth. A short-term cost saving measure can have long-term negative effects on profitability if calf growth or health is negatively affected.
The cost of any milk replacer program is a function of the cost per bag of milk replacer, milk replacer feeding rate per calf per day, and weaning age.
Cost of the bag of milk replacer – Cost is dependent on several things, including the fat and protein sources:
- Milk protein: Whey protein and whey protein concentrate have had the sharpest increase in cost but they still provide the best calf performance compared with other options. Quality (and price) can differ significantly among all-milk protein milk replacers. Always buy from a trusted supplier and stick with what has delivered good performance and health in the past.
- Plasma protein: These support similar performance to milk protein and, in cases of health challenges (e.g., environmental stress, co-mingling), may support greater growth and health due to functional proteins (similar to antibodies found in colostrum) continuously being delivered to the calf’s intestine.
- Alternative proteins: Soy protein concentrate and soluble wheat gluten are two of the most common alternative proteins available. These ingredients usually contribute about 50 percent of the protein in the bag (remainder from milk sources). Alternative proteins can deliver considerable cost savings compared with an all-milk (as much as $10 per bag or more), but calf performance will most certainly be lower during the first three weeks compared with all-milk milk replacers. Proven alternative protein milk replacers can provide at least 90 percent of the gain of an all-milk protein milk replacer with no negative health effects.
Feeding rate per calf per day – An adequate feeding rate is critical for achieving desired growth rates and supporting the calf’s immune system. To accomplish this, it is likely necessary to feed at least 1.25 pounds of powder per day to the young calf. The preweaning period has distinct time spans that are critical for calf growth and health, but offer opportunities for cost control. The first three weeks are critical for the calf. This is a time when the calf is most prone to diseases such as scours. It is also when the calf relies almost entirely on liquid feeds for its nutrient supply. Dramatic cost cutting is not advised for calves of this age because health and growth are likely to suffer.
Weaning age – The national average for weaning age is around eight weeks. Research has shown that once a calf is eating two to three pounds of starter every day, milk replacer feeding rates can be cut in half by feeding once instead of twice daily. Calf starter intake should approximately double during the week of once a day milk replacer feeding and continue to increase during the week after completely weaning the calves from milk replacer. If the calves are consuming enough calf starter, try reducing the age at which calves are weaned by one to two weeks in order to reduce feed costs without impacting calf growth.
Information is key to calf success. Seek out your local Vita Plus consultant or Vita Plus dealer when buying your milk replacer. Have them help you examine your feeding program and find the plan that works best for you and the goals of the operation. Now is not the time to reduce performance to save a few dollars as the replacement heifer will be a valuable addition to the dairy herd in two short years. Now is the time to maximize your return on dollars invested in a milk replacer by using proven products and programs as outlined above.