Whey used to be a waste product.  Dave Kuehnel, president of Milk Products Inc., Chilton, Wis., shared his memories of whey with the audience of the recent Vita Plus Calf Summit.

“The cheese plant in my rural Wisconsin neighborhood would accumulate whey in outdoor storage tanks for disposal,” he says. “When they got behind, it would overflow and literally run down the drainage ditch through our farm.” Now, that same product is like liquid gold.

This byproduct of cheese production only was approved in the U.S. for human food products in the 1980s, but since then has experienced an explosion in popularity and demand. Processing whey into fractions to specifically utilize its high-quality protein, fat and mineral contenthas become big business both domestically and globally. Whey protein, in particular, is a highly valuable ingredient in energy drinks and nutritional supplements.

Kuehnel says this increase in value has dramatically impacted the price of a product that previously utilized a large share of the whey that was used in the U.S. – calf milk replacers. While all-milk milk replacer has been the gold standard for years, he advises that this “super-premium” grade no longer may be the most cost-efficient choice.

“It’s a decision you have to make on a case-by-case basis, just like when you’re standing at the gas pump,” he says. “There are people who always will choose super-premium gasoline, regardless of the cost. But at a certain price point, the choice of all-milk milk replacer may become impractical for some. Are you willing to sacrifice 3 percent performance for 15 percent cost savings? Maybe – it’s your choice.”

Kuehnel advises reading milk-replacer labels carefully, pointing out that there can be tremendous product variation even within the all-milk category. He also says alternative protein sources such as soy, wheat and plasma have improved in quality and can offer a viable, lower-cost alternative to all-milk products.

“As an industry, we never should bemoan the high cost of whey, because it brings tremendous revenue to dairies,” says Kuehnel. He notes that at 60 cents per pound, the value of whey represented about $2.35/cwt. of this year’s Spring Class III USDA milk price.

But, he said the product’s high value may force some producers to evaluate a different “whey” to feed their calves.