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The ‘chicken philosophy’ of feeding calves

Drew A. Vermeire for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 March 2019

Nobody would buy the cheapest lumber, hire the cheapest carpenters who use the cheapest tools but still expect to have the finest cabinetry built.

Some people, however, try to feed the cheapest calves with the cheapest feed and the cheapest milk replacer but then expect to produce the best-quality calves. It doesn’t work with building cabinets, and it doesn’t work with growing calves.



Developing a management system to produce calves at the lowest cost requires a different paradigm which looks at input costs (not price), calf performance results and total cost of production instead of only looking at the price of the individual components.

Five-dollar corn

May 1996. Corn reached $5 per bushel. My feedlot clients responded by bringing cattle into the feedlot at 800 pounds instead of 600 pounds, and I followed the conventional wisdom and made the ration “cheaper” by replacing corn with lower-energy byproduct ingredients. The results were a disaster because heavier cattle are not as efficient as lighter cattle, hence higher amount of feed per pound of gain and, with a lower-energy ration, even higher amount of feed per pound of gain.

This combination raised the cost of gain to unprecedented levels. But we were forgiven because, after all, corn was $5 per bushel, so everyone knew the cost of gain was going to be higher.

Enter the chicken people. I read an article during that time by some poultry nutritionists who explained their philosophy, which was totally opposite of our beef philosophy. When corn was at more “normal” prices, their ration cost was around $100 per ton.

Ounces milk replacer per day


Now that corn was $5 per bushel, their ration cost had risen to $140 per ton. Now they were adding “expensive” micro-ingredients like enzymes, yeast, organic trace minerals, plant extracts, etc., that added about $10 per ton to the cost of feed. These additives represented a 10 percent increase during “normal” corn pricing but only a 7 percent increase in cost of feed since the ration cost had gone up with high corn prices. Their results were better feed conversion, higher rate of gain, and the cost of gain decreased to the same extent as if corn had dropped to $4 per bushel.

Bring in the calves

The “chicken philosophy” was a revelation to me, and it radically changed my philosophy of feeding calves. The most expensive feed cattle will ever consume is milk replacer, currently costing $2,000 to $2,500 per ton. By comparison, typical calf starter feed is currently less than $500 per ton. The sooner we can wean calves from milk replacer to solid feed, the lower our cost of production could be. Calves only eat 50 pounds in their entire lives, so a better-quality calf starter with a higher price of $50 per ton only has an impact of $1.25 per calf.

Since weaning of calves depends on the amount of rumen development, and we can estimate rumen development from starter feed intake, anything that increases daily starter intake can result in earlier weaning and reduce the total amount of milk replacer fed per calf. The rumen develops because of starch in the starter feed, so quality starter feeds should have lots of grain (greater than 50 percent) and be readily consumed by calves. Calves fed textured feeds typically perform better than calves fed all-pelleted starter feeds.

Daily feed intake, daily gain and cost of gain

Minimizing total cost of gain is most important to profitably raise calves. Instead of focusing on cost per day, calf producers should focus on cost of gain. Daily milk replacer intake dramatically affects this bottom-line metric. A 100-pound calf requires about 15 ounces of milk replacer powder per day for maintenance. Feeding the calf additional milk replacer each day results in an increase of daily gain, an increase in daily milk replacer cost but a lower cost of gain as shown for a 100-pound calf.

Both producers and calves benefit from feeding for an average daily gain (ADG) of 1 to 1.5 percent of bodyweight. The law of diminishing returns is evident here and, eventually, cost of gain increases because increased milk replacer eventually reaches a level in which calf starter decreases, which delays weaning and increases cost of production.

Lowest cost of gain with moderate feed intake and early weaning

Nursery calves with milk replacer, water and feed delivered into hutches or pens twice each day have much higher costs of housing, labor and feed resources than the same calves in pens with automatic waterers and a feedbunk. Feeding milk replacer at a high enough rate for the calf to gain 1 to 1.5 percent of bodyweight per day along with a high-quality calf starter feed results in healthier calves with lower cost of production.


Table 2 shows very clever research in which calves were fed milk replacer for either 42 or 28 days and fed 8- or 12-ounce milk replacer twice per day. It’s clever because treatment 1 and 2 were fed for the same number of days, treatments 2 and 3 were fed the same amount per day, and treatments 1 and 3 were fed the same total amount of milk replacer.

Calves fed milk replacer

The research shows while feed cost was higher for calves fed more milk replacer per day, those calves gained weight faster and had a lower cost of gain. The milk replacer fed in treatment 1 was a 20/20, and for treatments 2 and 3 was a 26/17 because calves need additional protein to gain weight. Cost of gain was highest for calves fed 8 ounces per feeding of the 20/20 milk replacer and lowest for calves fed 12 ounces per feeding and weaned on day 28.

Focus on the cost of gain and not the price per bag, price per ton or cost per day. As a general recommendation, feeding milk replacer at the rate of 12 to 14 ounces per feeding, twice per day, is a reasonable starting point, and calves generally gain about 1 to 1.25 pounds per day with the lowest cost of gain. Milk replacer should have 26 to 28 percent protein to meet the needs of this rate of gain. Higher amounts of milk replacer would need to be fed in cold weather or to double the calf birthweight in 56 days, which results in higher milk production, but intensified feeding requires a higher management level.  end mark

Drew A. Vermeire
  • Drew A. Vermeire

  • Nutritionist
  • Nouriche Nutrition Ltd.
  • Email Drew A. Vermeire

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