Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Whole-milk feeding made easy

Julian ‘Skip’ Olson Published on 24 August 2015

dairy calves

With the advent of on-farm pasteurizers, more and more dairy producers and custom calf raisers are choosing non-salable waste milk as the primary source of liquid calf rations. In fact, industry estimates suggest nearly half of all dairy calves raised in the U.S. are fed a diet of whole milk for at least part of the pre-weaned stage.



Whole milk is an excellent nutrition source for young calves. In one calf nutrition study, calves that consumed 10 percent of their bodyweight daily in whole milk received nearly 20 percent more metabolizable energy than calves consuming the same volume of 20-20 milk replacer. That difference translated into an increased average daily gain of 157 grams (0.35 pounds) in the pre-weaned phase.

It also has been suggested that this increase in metabolizable energy may help support immune function and help calves better endure cold stress, as well as contribute to improved growth.

Whole-milk shortcomings

Despite these advantages, there also are some trade-offs to feeding whole milk. Commercial milk replacers have a carefully balanced nutrition profile that includes necessary vitamins and minerals that can be deficient in whole milk. They are highly consistent and can be easily stored and mixed as needed as calf populations fluctuate. Waste milk, on the other hand, can vary considerably in terms of:

  • Consistency – Transition milk, which often makes up a good share of a dairy’s discarded milk, is higher in fat, protein and total solids content than standard whole milk, while milk from cows with mastitis or other illnesses may be lower in solids and fat.

A 2006 survey of 31 dairy farms in Wisconsin showed ranges of 2.8 to 4.7 percent for fat and 2.9 to 5.1 percent for protein in discarded waste milk. Another study in California showed that fat content ranged from 1.1 to 5.3 percent, and protein ranged from 2.9 to 4.7 from the waste milk on 10 farms. The same study looked at three herds in North Carolina, which showed a fat range from 2.18 to 4.11 percent and a protein range from 2.7 to 3.8 percent.

The excess water from flushing lines used to transport waste milk is another factor that can affect solids content. And waste milk may not be as carefully stored or as frequently agitated as salable milk on the dairy.


  • Supply – Most dairies do not (and should not) generate enough waste milk to feed all of its pre-weaned calves on a daily basis. A typical dairy will only produce enough waste milk to feed 30 to 60 percent of its heifer calves.

    The amount of waste milk a dairy needs varies depending on feeding rate, weaning age and calf population, while supply is dictated by the number of fresh and sick or treated cows the dairy is milking. Although there is some correlation between fresh cows and number of calves being fed, it is not an absolute relationship, and supply and demand often do not match.

    Managing somatic cell count by diverting milk from cows with high cell counts to calf feed can also be an expensive strategy without attention to detail of the contributing risk factors for udder health in the cow herd.

  • Nutritional content – Whole milk – even consistent, salable whole milk – is not perfectly balanced for calf nutrition. The standard protein-to-fat ratio for whole milk is 25 to 28 percent protein (dry matter basis) and 28 to 30 percent fat. But recent advancements in calf nutrition show that this protein-to-fat ratio may not be ideal to support lean tissue growth, and the relatively high level of fat also could suppress starter-grain intake.

What’s more, whole milk also is deficient in a number of vitamins and trace minerals when compared to National Research Council (NRC 2001) recommendations for dairy calf nutrition. Among the deficient elements are iron, manganese, copper, iodine, cobalt, selenium, vitamin D and vitamin E.

Balancers bring consistency

As our knowledge of waste milk has improved, so too has the technology to enhance it. One easy and comprehensive way to improve the value of pasteurized waste milk is to routinely use a pasteurized waste-milk balancer. While similar to milk replacer, a balancer is not intended to be fed directly to calves. Rather, it is used to provide consistency to the solids levels, nutrient content and supply of pasteurized waste milk.

A balancer product will usually add a higher amount of protein, and minimal level of fat, to bring the liquid ration up to nutritional standards that promote ideal growth in young calves. These products can also be used to fortify milk supplies so they reach NRC standards for trace minerals and vitamins. Feed-through larvicides and ionophores for growth promotion and coccidiosis prevention also may be added.

In addition, balancers can be used to increase the volume of pasteurized waste milk, extending the supply to meet the nutritional needs of all of the pre-weaned calves on the farm. This provides a consistent supply throughout every calf’s milk-feeding phase, avoiding the inconsistencies, transition challenges and digestive upsets that can occur when calves are switched back and forth between whole milk and milk replacer.


Care should be taken to feed a consistent percent of solids when adding balancers to whole milk. It is common to add some water in addition to the balancer powder so the solids level and volume meet the goals of the feeding program. Adding only balancer powder to whole milk can result in high solids levels and their resulting digestive risks, particularly if the fresh water program is not adequate for the calf.

Pasteurized milkand balancer resources

Working with your nutritionist or calf feed supplier can help sort out the best options for managing your calf nutrition program based on pasteurized waste milk. One key element to remember is that when a balancer is being used to boost solids, be sure to:

1.Evaluate solids level before pasteurization

2.Add the balancer after pasteurization

Solids can easily be evaluated on-farm using a Brix refractometer. If a Brix reading indicates a sample is less than 12 percent solids, it is advised to use a balancer to normalize solids level, following product labels for balancer powder quantity.

If a sample exceeds 12 percent solids, water can be added to normalize solids level and extend the whole milk supply. Remember that a refractometer is useful for evaluating whole milk solids but is much less accurate after milk powders have been added.

There is available from several feed suppliers an easy-to-use, hand-held calculator that works on a smartphone or tablet to help manage the multiple variables that change daily in a calf feeding operation.

It factors in calf numbers, whole milk available, whole milk refractometer or actual milk solids analysis and the amount of water and powder needed for a consistent ration. This tool can also be used to assess the costs of feeding hospital milk, salable milk and various types of milk replacer or balancers. PD

PHOTO: Staff photo.

Julian ‘Skip’ Olson
  • Julian ‘Skip’ Olson

  • National Accounts Manager
  • Milk Products LLC
  • Email Julian ‘Skip’ Olson