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Milk enhancement tools to drive precise calf feeding

Julian ‘Skip’ Olson for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 August 2018

“We need to make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” This quote, which is often attributed to Albert Einstein, accurately sums up our quest to deliver optimal nutrition to pre-weaned calves.

Because we replace their mothers, we owe it to young calves to take the best possible care of them. In this “foster parent” role, we are charged with providing precise and ample nutrients just as Mother Nature would.



That can be a surprisingly variable challenge but, fortunately, we have many nutritional tools available to help maximize calf growth and health without sacrificing herd profitability.

Every farm is different, and circumstances can change over time. Consider a few scenarios and how we can respond to address variability in calf nutrition:

Challenge No. 1: Switching from milk replacer to pasteurized waste milk

Feeding pasteurized waste milk can be an efficient use of on-farm resources, but waste milk for a typical herd usually provides only 30 to 60 percent of the total milk volume needed to feed all calves on the dairy. In addition, according to National Research Council guidelines for pre-weaned dairy calves, milk is deficient in most vitamins and minerals.


Stretch milk supplies with a powdered extender, which is mixed much like milk replacer and added to pasteurized waste milk. The amount of extender can be adjusted daily based on milk supply and number of calves on feed. To address vitamin and mineral deficiencies, use a fortifier to enhance waste milk supplies.


In addition to a consistent dose of nutrients for every calf every day, fortifiers can deliver additional supplements – such as feed-through larvacides, coccidiostats and yeast products – at a fixed dose per head per day.

Challenge No. 2: Housing shortage

A dairy experiencing a flush of calves has a shortage of hutch space and needs to reduce weaning age from their standard 56 days to 49 days to move animals through more quickly.


Increase protein and reduce fat in the liquid ration. Fat has a satiety effect that makes calves feel full and discourages starter grain intake. On a dry matter basis, whole milk usually contains 25 to 28 percent protein and 28 to 31 percent fat. When feeding whole milk, use a balancer to raise the protein levels and reduce fat content to a final solution of about 26:20.

If feeding milk replacer, switch from a standard 20:20 milk replacer to a higher-protein formulation containing a similar protein-to-fat ratio. Work with your nutritionist to develop a high-protein, liquid ration that will promote lean tissue growth.

Husbandry also plays an important role in transitioning to weaning. It’s up to us human caretakers to teach calves how to drink water and consume grain. Repeatedly training them to do so will ensure they are consuming both feedstuffs consistently as they are weaned.


Water and grain consumption are critical to accelerate rumen development and prepare calves to digest a dry ration. Begin teaching calves to drink water and grain at a very young age (2 to 3 days old) by consistently providing them fresh grain and water at the same time as their milk feeding.

When shortening the number of days calves are on milk, your goal always should be to do so without sacrificing calf health or growth.

Challenge No. 3: Feeding salable milk

In a period of low milk prices, a farm uses salable bulk tank milk to make up for daily shortfalls in the waste milk supply needed to feed all their calves.


Calculate the true cost of feeding salable milk. A dairy is in business to sell milk as its main source of revenue. The cost of diverting that revenue stream may be higher than you think. Using an extender to increase the waste milk supply almost always is a preferable option in terms of both economics and consistency.

And remember, milk alone actually is not “perfect” for calves, as it is deficient in many vitamins and trace minerals. If you do choose to feed salable milk, be sure to meet calves’ nutritional needs by adding a fortifier.

Work with your nutrition supplier to choose the best options for maintaining calf milk supplies while providing ideal nutrition and health support. Options will change with the season, market conditions and circumstances on your farm. The best program in February may not make sense by July.

Fortunately, a variety of options are available to customize your calf nutrition program. The “heavy lifting” of formulating high-quality, customizable products already is done. Simple calculation tools also make daily adjustments easy.

As Einstein suggested, the complex challenge of effective calf feeding can be simplified for daily delivery of a highly technical nutrition package without simplifying to the extreme such that calf health and growth suffers.  end mark

Julian ‘Skip’ Olson
  • Julian ‘Skip’ Olson

  • Technical Services Veterinarian
  • Milk Products LLC
  • Email Julian ‘Skip’ Olson

Calf nutrition glossary

  • Whole milk – Any milk that comes directly from the cow versus commercially manufactured products. Regular whole milk contains about 12.5 percent dry matter. Based on National Research Council guidelines for pre-weaned calves, whole milk is deficient in many vitamins and trace minerals.

  • Waste milk – Milk from treated or recently treated cows that is withheld from commercial sale. Often also called “hospital milk,” it may include milk from recently fresh cows. Solids levels in waste milk can range from about 5 to 14 percent. Under normal circumstances, waste milk can provide about 30 to 60 percent of the total milk volume needed to feed all of a dairy’s heifer calves.

  • Salable milk – Milk from the bulk tank that is of commercial sale quality. Feeding salable milk from calves directly impacts dairy revenues.

  • Extender – Milk solids product that, when mixed with an appropriate volume of water, can be used to extend waste milk supplies.

  • Balancer – Milk solids product that can be used to normalize the varying solids content of waste milk. Balancers also can be used to increase the protein contribution of whole-milk rations and provide an appropriate amount of vitamins, trace minerals and additives.

  • Fortifier – Calf milk supplement that provides essential vitamins and trace minerals to whole-milk rations. Additional additives like feed-through larvacides, ionophores, coccidiostats, plasma, yeast products and essential oils also can be delivered via fortifier products. A fortifier will not contribute to the volume of whole milk or change its components.