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Feeding calves ‘dump’ or ‘surplus’ milk: What every producer needs to know

Bob James for Progressive Dairy Published on 13 April 2020

Currently, producers throughout the U.S. may be asked to either dump loads of milk or reduce production as dairy markets respond to decreased demand for dairy products caused by changes in the restaurant trade. This is a challenging proposition with few totally “right” answers.

If you are using milk replacer either as the sole feed for calves or are blending it with waste milk, why not use this surplus milk to feed to calves? It’s a tremendous resource of digestible nutrients. However, producers should consider the following before making dramatic changes.



Altering the milk diet

Do not switch back and forth between milk and milk replacer or, if both are blended, don’t change the proportions too dramatically. Remember, these are young animals that thrive on consistent, high-quality diets. Abrupt changes will cause more digestive upsets and probably more health issues. You might spend more time treating sick calves.

Feed pasteurized milk

All milk fed to calves should be pasteurized. If you don’t already possess this equipment, there are some significant risks to consider when feeding raw milk – regardless if it’s saleable or not. Mycoplasma, Johne’s bacteria and other viruses and harmful bacteria can be present in saleable milk and transmit disease to your calves. Feeding raw milk can increase digestive and respiratory disease in the preweaned calves and possibly impact health of cows later in life.

Milk delivery logistics

How will you maintain the quality of milk from the cow’s teat to the calf’s mouth? Milk is a great source of nutrition, but it’s also a great growth medium for bacteria. At ambient temperature, bacterial populations double every 20 minutes. With approaching warm weather, milk quality can deteriorate very quickly.

If you already possess a pasteurizer, these factors have already been considered, particularly if you can pipe milk directly to the pasteurizer or a milk collection tank for the calves. This makes the decision to use surplus milk easier.

If you are feeding raw milk to your calves (not recommended) and don’t have a pasteurizer, consider these four things:


  • How will you transport this milk to the calves? Think about all the critical points between the cow’s teat and the calf’s mouth.

  • If you are using fresh milk, it should be fed within one hour of milking to limit bacterial growth.

  • If the milk has been cooled, it won’t be as palatable for young calves, which need it the most. This will likely create more stress for the youngest, most vulnerable calves. Older calves seem to adjust to colder milk.

  • How will you sanitize the additional equipment used to handle this milk going to the calves? Make sure to consider each surface exposed to milk and how it can be cleaned effectively. This includes transfer hoses and lines, gaskets, nozzles, etc.

Purchasing pasteurizer equipment must be part of the decision in using milk from the farm. The “milk taxi” equipment is especially suited to smaller farms as it enables collection, cooling, pasteurization and delivery of milk in one piece of equipment. However, for farms feeding more than 50 calves at one time, equipment is more sophisticated and expensive and involves another layer of management to ensure successful pasteurization and sanitation. In all cases, be sure to determine the initial investment required and annual operating costs.

Feeding acidified milk

What about acidifying milk? The addition of acid to decrease the pH to about 4.2 has been used by some dairies to enable feeding unrefrigerated milk to calves. This practice, popularized in Canada, uses formic acid to acidify milk. Note, this acid is not legally allowed in the U.S. as it’s a known carcinogen. Other acids have been less successful, and one still needs to consider how to handle the flow of milk from the cow to the calf and storage prior to feeding.

Feeding milk replacer

There are advantages to feeding high-quality milk replacers. They include:

  • Nutrient content and quality is ensured.

  • Low bacteria count from the bag. Several years ago, we did a study at Virginia Tech where we monitored bacterial growth in diets for calves fed milk replacer versus whole milk. On the worst days, the bacteria count of the milk replacer diet was lower than the best day when milk was fed.

  • Labor involved in diet prep and feeding is less and not tied to operation of a pasteurizer or proper cooling and heating of milk before and after pasteurization.

  • Milk replacers and “balancers” can provide coccidocide, pre- and probiotics, vitamins and others additives, which promote calf health.

  • Many milk replacer companies have highly qualified technical specialists who can provide valuable assistance during this “high risk” time of the heifer’s life.

Additional considerations

Some handlers with “base” plans are encouraging producers to reduce production by paying very little for “over-base” milk. In such cases, there may be more incentive to consider diverting the over-base milk to the calves. However, carefully consider the impact of this on total labor needs for feeding calves and possible impact on calf health.

If there’s a calf ranch nearby, they may be interested in purchasing your over-base milk.

Avoid making drastic changes to the calf feeding program, particularly when the farm must dump a load to milk.


The initial response to the sudden availability of all this milk is to use it in the calf program. However, carefully consider the impact on animal health (immediate and long term), labor needs, investment in equipment and longer-term considerations for the dairy.  end mark

PHOTO: Calves thrive on consistent, high-quality diets. Abrupt changes will cause more digestive upsets and probably more health issues, which could lead to producers spending more time treating sick calves. Getty Images.

Bob James
  • Bob James

  • Calf Management Specialist
  • GPS Dairy Consulting LLC
  • Email Bob James