Calving Preparedness

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Do You Have It in the Bag?

Milk Replacer – Meeting the Nutritional Needs of Your Calves

Often one of the key factors to the vitality and sometimes the survival of calves during calving season is the nutritional backdrop of milk replacer. Whether the calf is unable to suck, or the mother is unable to provide adequate milk - or a whole list of complications that can occur during calving - ensuring calves receive the support of proper and adequate nutrition will have an impact on their health from start to finish.

Get Off to a Healthy Start – What to Look for in a Milk Replacer

Not all milk replacers are created equal. That is why it is important to read the ingredients label on the bag and know what to look for.

The main ingredients in milk replacer are protein, fat (energy), carbohydrates, as well as vitamins and minerals. As the saying goes however, "you get what you pay for," and when it comes to milk replacer it doesn't pay to come up short.

"It is important to select milk replacer for your calves based on the quality of ingredients, not price. A quality milk replacer is key to keeping calves alive and growing well," says Bernie Grumpelt, Nutritionist with Nursette, Country Junction Feeds, Wetaskiwin, Alberta. "If you don't meet the nutritional needs of the calf from the start and it gets sick in the first six weeks of life, you will be dealing with it for the rest of its life."

After receiving colostrum for the first three days of life, a good milk replacer should provide an optimal blend of energy and fats, protein, and vitamins and minerals for healthy calf development. The protein in milk replacer is either derived from milk or vegetable. Milk protein comes in the form of skim milk or whey. And all milk protein (ideally skim) is essential for young calves under four to six weeks of age as they are unable to digest any plant-based proteins at this stage of life. The composition and amino acid formulation of skim is the same as what the cow would provide for protein – whereas whey protein is slightly altered due to processing.

Soy protein has low digestibility and low amino acid content, which can cause an allergic reaction to the gut tissue and decrease available protein to the young calf, resulting in diarrhea.

"Although veg proteins are generally cheaper, they will not get that calf off to the best start," says Janie Jensen, PMT. "Once the calf's rumen is functioning, it can digest veg proteins better at a few weeks old."

Veg or soy protein, she says, is only recommended for calves that have reached four to six weeks of age that can digest plant matter.

Although milk is the protein source of choice for young calves, Jensen says that it is important to remind producers to avoid feeding store bought milk as it is pasteurized, which means the calf will not receive all the vital vitamins and trace minerals that they need as some vitamins will have been lost to the pasteurization process.

"It is best to rely on a formulated milk replacer that has been designed to supply all the vitamins and trace minerals that are required by the calf," says Jensen.

Reading the Label

To help you select the proper milk replacer for your calves, start by looking at the label of ingredients. For example, in a bag that lists 20/20/20, the first number is the amount of crude protein in the milk. If the second number is equal (20), that means that it contains all milk protein. If that number is less than the first number, it likely means that it contains veg/soy protein. The last number represents fat content.

The age of the calf will demand different requirements, so it will be important to remember that one bag may not fit all. To support young calves especially, the best approach is to try to best mimic the cow's milk, which is 20 per cent fat and 20 per cent milk. The milk replacer should consist of approximately 20–22 per cent protein. But the contents of that protein are important when it comes to the age of the calf.

"For young calves, 20/20/20 is the best recipe for supporting nutritional requirements and digestibility," says Grumpelt. "But for really young calves that are stressed, a higher milk protein formulation like 26/26/16 for the first week or so will help best support the calf."

Beyond the first two weeks of milk replacer, Grumpelt suggests that calves can then be converted to a pelleted milk replacer. That way you don't have the muss and fuss that you have with liquid milk replacer.

"A lot of beef producers really like transitioning to a pelleted milk replacer. It is a nice transition from a wet milk product to a dry product – then on to a calf starter by six weeks. It's real easy."

Best Practices

In addition to selecting the right replacer for your calves, it is important to consider the following best practices when it comes to milk replacer:

Measure: "A common error I often see when it comes to feeding milk replacer to calves is over-mixing," says Jensen. "It is important to weigh the powder mixture at least once in the container that you are using so that you know for future use that you are being exact in your measure. I recommend that producers purchase a small, inexpensive house scale and weigh that powder so that you know exactly what you are feeding. It is best to be accurate when it comes to milk replacer. Because, if you over-mix, you are going to create scours in that calf and then it becomes dehydrated and you've set yourself up for more problems."

If calves do develop scours, Jensen advises maintaining the same amount of liquid, but backing off the milk replacer powder by about 25 per cent for two to three days.

Temperature: "Be careful that water is not too hot, as boiling water can peel the coating off of vitamins and hinder the amount available to the calf. Generally, the ideal temperature for mixing milk replacer is between 38 and 42 degrees celsius."

Feeding: "If you feed milk replacer in pails, be diligent on cleaning those pails in between using them for milk replacer and water," says Jensen. "The reason for this is that calves have an esophageal groove that allows the milk to go into the abomasum and water to go into the rumen. If there is too much milk left in the pail and you add water to it, then the calf's natural process is confused and it is not sure where it needs to go and it can end up in the wrong spot and the calf will end up with gut upset."

"Make sure too," she says. "That the nipples on bottles and pails fit the calf, that the calf can maneuver them, and that the holes are not too large that the calf consumes too much liquid too quickly."

Expiry: Always store milk replacer in a cool, dry place so that the powder does not absorb moisture and spoil. Be cautious of reusing milk replacer leftover from last calving season, as the product can become rancid. Be sure to check for expiration dates on the tag or labels and when in doubt – throw it out. It's not worth the risk.

For over 20 years, UFA has supported cow/calf producers, by delivering the tools, products, services and support, to ensure a healthy start and strong finish to the calving season. To learn more about our products, please visit your local UFA or connect with one of our livestock specialists by calling 1-877-258-4500, Option 1 or visit our Contacts page.