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Economic feeding strategies: When is milk replacer the right price?

Casey Hinz and Carrie Ceh for Progressive Dairy Published on 16 November 2020
calf drinking milk

Being a part of the dairy industry is a fulfilling and rewarding privilege, but it can also be an unpredictable journey. Milk prices are constantly fluctuating, and it can make budget evaluation difficult. For this reason, we pose a simple question: What should producers be feeding their calves from an economic standpoint?

Tank milk they could be profiting from or milk replacer? In this article, we will address this question and discuss the economics behind such feeding strategies.



There are many factors to consider when choosing to feed milk replacer or whole salable tank milk. Some of these factors include: distance of transportation for feeding, cost and maintenance of a pasteurizer system; tank milk cleanliness and percent solids; and nutrient availability or deficiency. Surprisingly, six important nutrients that support growth and health of the calf are deficient in whole milk. These micronutrients include vitamins A, D and E, along with iron, magnesium and copper. Nutrients are vital for immune function, suckle reflex and electrolyte balance of the calf. Calf milk replacer (CMR) is nutritionally complete and has the proper ratio of protein to fat, which will improve average daily gain (ADG), mammary and tissue development, starter intake at weaning and decrease overall mortality and morbidity rates. If properly mixed, CMR also provides consistent solids levels and is free of harmful bacteria and pathogens.

Many of you are probably asking why we are not comparing waste milk to milk replacer. Unfortunately, feeding waste milk is inadvisable due to antibiotic resistance in the calf and the harmful pathogens that may be present in waste milk, even after pasteurizing.

It is no secret farms everywhere are struggling financially, and we need to address the economic advantages of feeding CMR. Table 1 is a chart that illustrates the break-even price to feed CMR versus tank milk based on current milk price per hundredweight (cwt) and percent solids of the tank milk. For example, at 12.5% solids and $18-per-cwt milk price, it would be economically more beneficial to buy a bag of CMR as long as it is under $72 per bag. That being said, if you purchase CMR for $65 per bag and plan to feed for a high-performance level at 2.5 pounds of solids per day for eight to nine weeks (3 × 50-pound bag of CMR per calf), you would be saving $21 per calf (3 × $7 difference). If the milk price is down to $14 per cwt, however, the price per bag would need to be under $56, but if milk hits $20 per cwt again, this increases to $80 per bag.

0121 pd hinz tbl1

How does the percent solids of the tank milk affect this scenario? After collecting percent solids data from 16 dairy farms in western New York, the average percent solids fed to calves for salable tank milk was 12.5%. Only one dairy averaged 13.5%; this was a Jersey herd. Knowing your percent solids is important to determine how much money you could save feeding milk replacer. Again, at $18 per cwt and 12.5% solids, the break-even price per bag is $72, but if the farm tests lower at just 11.5% solids in their tank milk, the break-even price per bag increases with $6 per bag.


If your milk solids and mailbox cwt price break-even point ends up in the green (Table 1), it is economically more beneficial to buy a bag of CMR (at $65 per 50-pound bag) than feeding whole salable milk, in addition to all the other aforementioned benefits of CMR. Therefore, it is vital to know the percent solids of tank milk on your farm to effectively use this chart. Either a digital or optical BRIX refractometer can be used to determine the solids. The percentage solids calculation for tank milk = BRIX reading +2 (for example, if the BRIX is 10, the tank milk has 12% solids).

Economics have and will continue to play a role in the decision making on farms. Discussing break-even CMR price will hopefully allow producers and consultants to make better buying decisions when it comes to the nutrition of their calves.  end mark

PHOTO: Photo by Mike Dixon.

Casey Hinz
  • Casey Hinz

  • Territory Sales Manager
  • Denkavit
  • Email Casey Hinz

Carrie Ceh is a territory sales manager with Denkavit. Email Carrie Ceh.

3 ways to help calves transition from one nutritional source to another

1. Blending of milk replacer and tank milk

Blending the two sources together (up to 50% whole milk) will help the calf effectively transition from source to source from a biological standpoint along with taste and palatability. 


2. Fortifying and correcting for solids

Whether blending milk replacer and tank milk or using tank milk exclusively, a product should be added that will not only supplement the vital nutrients deficient in whole milk but also correct for varying solids levels. This could be a milk replacer or balancer product. Feeding each calf, every day, a consistent diet is vital for overall health and performance. Please with your local calf specialist to help you find which product would be the best fit for your calves.

3. If you choose to feed 100% salable whole milk

Proper pasteurization is key. Help your calves stay healthy by reducing the pathogen load they consume each day.