With the dairy economy still struggling, farmers and producers have been looking for ways to cut costs and lower overall expenses in their operations. Any cost saving decisions should be done with future implications in mind. Will cutting back on a certain fertilizer or pesticide create problems for future production? Will a management change affect the health of my animals down the road? Because as stressful as times are, looking into the future and planning on the longevity of your operations should still be an everyday occurrence to maintain a positive attitude. Looking at ways to cut costs, lower costs of production, and positively impact your bottom line are all beneficial practices to start today. One area that you can start with are your calves. Numerous producers have questioned a switch from milk replacer to whole milk to save money. Many are concerned with the logistics and if they can successfully make the switch on their farms. The following do’s and don’ts are to be used as general rules of thumb when taking this switch into consideration.
Do alleviate financial burdens of feeding milk replacer if you have the available non-salable milk from your herd. Most milk cooperatives will put a base on producers and charge a fee when too much milk is shipped. Therefore, using the milk produced on the farm and saving the milk replacer bill is a financial win-win situation.
Do be aware that whole milk is nearly 100% digestible in the dairy calf. Some milk replacers on the market today have replaced milk proteins in milk replacers with plant-based proteins in order to decrease costs. However, these plant-based proteins are not as digestible in the dairy calf for the first 3 weeks of life. This will create a calf that is deficient in protein which consequently stresses the immune system and can lead to unhealthy calves.
Do feed adequate amounts to meet or exceed the nutritional requirements of the calf. Nutritional amounts are determined on a dry matter basis. Whole milk is 87% water therefore it is 13% dry matter. Feeding 10 pounds of milk would equal 1.3 pounds of dry matter. One gallon of milk weighs 8.6 pounds and would convert to 1.11 pounds of dry matter. In order to provide adequate nutrition, whole milk should be fed at a rate of 5 to 6 quarts per day for large breed calves. Feeding amounts for Jerseys and other small calves would need decreased by approximately 25%. These feeding rates equal 1.3 to 1.6 lb. of dry matter if using 12.5% as the solids content of whole milk. Milk replacer would need to be fed at a higher amount on a dry matter basis to provide the same nutritional content.
Do make sure that calves are drinking their milk within a reasonable time frame. Healthy calves should consume their milk immediately after being fed. The bacteria count in milk can double every 20 minutes as milk reaches room temperature. Therefore, if milk is not being consumed within 2 to 3 hours, dependent on the outside temperature, the milk needs to be discarded. If milk is not being consumed, this is an automatic alert that the calf’s health status should be evaluated.
Do provide a period of transition where feeding amounts of milk are decreased to encourage an increase in starter intake prior to weaning. Calves need to be provided a good quality starter from day 3 of life. Rumen development in the calf does not begin until the calves consume at least a half pound of grain for 21 to 28 days. Three weeks of adequate rumen development will help to prevent calves from experiencing a growth slump at weaning time.
Do keep whole milk temps between 90 and 100 °F when feeding it to calves. This temperature will need to be increased in the winter months to conserve heat and energy in the calf. Milk shuttles and smaller storage tanks can be used to keep milk at desired temps. Feeding whole milk straight from the bulk tank can work as long as the calves are not exposed to the outside elements of mother nature.
Don’t forgo a pasteurizer if you and your veterinarian are not confident with the disease status of your herd. Pasteurizers can help to decrease the chance of disease transfer, however, will not completely eliminate all disease pathogens. Mycoplasma and Johne’s can be eliminated with the use of a pasteurizer; however, they need to be operating according to the individual pasteurizer’s specifications.
Don’t forget to provide fresh, clean water daily. Rumen development is dependent on starter and water intake. Water from milk and milk replacers does not meet this requirement.
Don’t miss out on the opportunity to know what the bacteria counts in your milk are. Milk testers can take samples and test the bacteria levels in the milk that you are feeding calves. This can alert you to potential problems in your feeding program, especially if you are seeing scours in your calves.
Don’t leave your daily gains to a guessing game. Designate times in your management program to take weight and height measurements of your growing calves. If you do not have scales available, inexpensive weigh tapes can be just as effective to give you a consistent idea of how your calves are growing. Average daily gains can be determined if weights at birth and at weaning are taken.
Don’t be fooled by the possible fluctuations in components when feeding whole milk. Standard milk replacers consist of 20% fat and 20% protein. When feeding whole milk, the fat and protein percentages will not fluctuate any more the fat and protein components in your bulk tank. Seasonal changes may create a small fluctuations, but not enough to create drastic changes in the calf feeding program. An average Holstein herd will have a 3.7% fat and 3.3% protein, which would equate to 28% fat and 25% protein and is comparable to most higher quality milk replacers on the market There are multiple, successful ways to feed calves. Some producers raise excellent calves on milk replacers and their neighbors will swear by feeding while milk. Each individual farm has different management styles that fit their unique operation. Perhaps facility design and location of the bulk tank create challenges for implementing new changes. Whatever factors may be holding up the decision-making process, knowing these facts about whole milk should help you move forward. Whatever change you may decide to implement, make sure it is an economical decision that has the future of your farm in mind.