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Does feeding more milk replacer make economic sense?

Tana Dennis and Kayla Aragona for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 March 2019

Raising replacement heifers is the second-highest cost to a dairy enterprise, making up nearly 20 percent of production costs. More than 15 percent of that total cost is incurred during the first two months of life, when milk replacer makes up a large portion of nutrient intake.

New research has shown that decreasing the cost of milk replacer feeding programs and increasing efficiency of nutrient use in pre-weaned heifers can help mitigate these costs by as much as $60 per calf. Investigating the potential effects of these different milk replacer feeding programs beyond weaning, and even into first lactation, can also help determine which program makes sense from efficiency and economic standpoints.

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A recent trial from the Provimi Nurture Research Center evaluated the effects of four milk replacer rates on growth over 4 months of age. The levels included 1.5 pounds, 1.8 pounds, 2.4 pounds and ad libitum allowance of milk replacer per day. Performance results are listed in Table 1, with a cost analysis shown in Table 2.

Performance of calves fed four rates of milk replacer

Costs associated with claves fed four rates of milk replacer

Although calves fed ad libitum rates of milk replacer gained slightly more bodyweight than the other three levels, the cost for that gain was 29 percent greater than calves fed 1.5 pounds per day of milk replacer. However, calves fed the 1.5 pounds per day of milk replacer had greater hip width change (3.7 versus 3.5 inches for other levels) compared to calves fed 1.8 pounds, 2.4 pounds and ad libitum of milk replacer per day, respectively. As milk replacer feeding rates increased, cost increased dramatically, with no subsequent increase in growth.

Three published trials from the Provimi Nurture Research Center comparing moderate and greater milk replacer hand-feeding rates are summarized in Table 3.

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Performance of calves fed two rates of milk replace in three published trials

Milk replacer intakes averaged 64 and 114 pounds of powder per calf for moderate and greater feeding rates, respectively. Even though milk replacer intake increased by 50 pounds for greater feeding rates, bodyweight gains from 0 to 4 months of age were only 9 pounds greater for calves fed more milk replacer, and frame growth was less than calves fed a moderate level of milk replacer. Feed efficiency over the four months was similar between moderate and greater milk replacer feeding rates. This strongly indicates that calves fed greater rates of milk replacer are not gaining frame size, but body condition.

When costs are applied to these data ($1.20 per pound for milk replacer and 20 cents per pound for starter; Table 4), total milk replacer cost is 44 percent ($60) greater for calves fed more milk replacer versus calves fed a moderate level of milk replacer.

costs associated with claves fed two rates of milk replacer in three ublished trials

When comparing cost of weight gain and structural growth, the cost per pound of bodyweight gain is 22 percent greater and cost per inch of hip width change is 29 percent greater for calves fed more milk replacer versus calves fed the moderate milk replacer level.

Based on calf growth and the economic assessment of controlled research, pre-weaned calves should be raised on moderate milk replacer programs, as this results in greater skeletal growth and reduced costs to 4 months of age. A $60 savings per calf and reduced cost per pound of weight gain and frame growth are important in any calf program, especially in today’s dairy economy.  end mark

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Kayla Aragona, Ph.D., is a calf and heifer specialist with Provimi. Email Kayla Aragona

Tana Dennis
  • Tana Dennis

  • Calf and Heifer - Technical Support Specialist
  • Provimi
  • Email Tana Dennis

Take-home points:

1. No growth differences were observed at 4 months of age between calves fed a moderate or higher level of milk replacer.

2. When feeding higher levels of milk replacer, feed costs increase about 44 percent compared to calves fed a moderate level of milk replacer.

3. In light of today’s dairy economy, calves should be fed a moderate level of milk replacer, as it reduces costs and results in the same growth rates and efficiency to 4 months of age.

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