As milk prices rise, should we reconsider what we feed calves?

Improved health and growth has been seen with higher levels of milk feeding, and arguably even more so with whole milk feeding (C.B. Shivley, 2017) (S.A. Dubrovsky, 2019). However, with rising UK farmgate milk prices to be seen in at least early 2022, farmers could be seen to move away from whole milk or high skimmed-milk based products as their prices rise.

Energy sources in whole milk are largely from fatty acids and to a smaller extent lactose. Calf milk replacers commonly use energy sources of lower digestibility such as vegetable oils and will have a higher proportion of lactose compared to whole milk. Levels of fat and protein are generally lower in CMRs compared to whole milk, and so growth rates are often poorer in calves fed CMR (C.B. Shivley, 2017).

Non-saleable whole milk looks like an attractive option as a waste product offering whole milk composition, however there are valid concerns including bacterial contamination, disease transmission and antibiotic residues which may lead to antibiotic resistance and alterations in the gut flora. Pasteurised saleable milk can offer the highest health and performance benefits, but is this cost beneficial in the upcoming markets?

The graph above shows the cost of liquid feeding calves per day at various farmgate milk and CMR prices, based on comparable feeding regimes. Feeding 900g/day of CMR at £2000/t or 6L of whole milk at 30ppl milk price would both result in calf rearing costs of £1.80 per calf per day. Milk prices are set to rise above 34ppl in 2022 equating to a CMR price of over £2300. On paper CMR seems like clear choice in this market, but is there a cost benefit in healthier calves with improved growth and performance?

Whilst both whole milk and skimmed based products are likely to rise in price in the coming year, keeping milk feed quantities high and of the best quality remains of highest importance in calf performance and disease prevention, especially respiratory disease (S.A. Dubrovsky, 2019). Reducing liquid feed volumes or quality is likely to result in a false economy and increased costs in treating calf disease or delayed AFC.


C.B. Shivley, J. E. L. N. J. U. C. A. K. M. S. T. J. E. J. D. O. a. F. B. G., 2017. Preweaned heifer management on US dairy operations: Part VI. Factors associated with average daily gain in preweaned dairy heifer calves. J. Dairy Sci., Volume 101, p. 9245–9258.

S.A. Dubrovsky, A. L. V. E. B. M. K. P. V. R. T. W. L. a. S. S. A., 2019. Epidemiology of bovine respiratory disease (BRD) in preweaned calves on California dairies: The BRD 10K study. J. Dairy Sci., Volume 102, pp. 7306-7319.