Have you seen the price of milk replacer lately?
Anyone who buys milk replacer has certainly noticed the increase in the price over the last year. Compared to March 2021, the price of milk replacers have increased by $15 to $20 per bag! Some products are approaching $100/bag. These price increases cause us to ask, “should I feed whole milk instead?” and “how can I mitigate the higher costs of raising calves?”
Supply chain issues have affected the entire market and milk replacer is experiencing the same challenges as other goods. Shortages of key ingredients and competition from other industries causes ingredient prices to rise. Costs of labor, packaging, and freight make it more expensive to get the product to the end user. The result is that the price of milk replacer has risen dramatically over the last year.
Whole Milk vs. Milk Replacer
If the cost per bag has you considering feeding whole milk instead of milk replacer there are many things to consider before making a change in your calf feeding program.
- What is your milk worth? You need to know your mailbox price and your percent solids to know what your saleable milk is worth. Percent solids can be approximated by adding the fat, protein, and other solids content of your milk from the milk plant. The table below shows what you can pay for milk replacer depending on your pay price and percent solids. Find your pay price across the top and your solids percentage along the side; the intersection of the row and column give you a breakeven price for a 50 lb bag of milk replacer. If you can buy milk replacer for less than that number, you will make more money by selling your milk than it costs to buy replacer. The higher the milk price, the more you can spend on milk replacer and still come out ahead. This table simply calculates the value of milk solids; it does not account for other costs associated with either feeding system.
Breakeven Milk Replacer Cost/bag (assumes milk replacer is 95% dry matter)
% solids in tank milk
- How to value waste milk? People often consider non-saleable milk as having no value. In reality, it costs money to produce that milk. At the most basic level, that cow consumed feed to make that milk, so it’s value must be higher than the cost of her feed. Assuming the cost of a pound of TMR dry matter is $0.13 and a given cow is producing 70 lbs. of milk, the cost to feed her is about $6.24/day or $8.91/cwt. Of course, she may have been treated and certainly used bedding, parlor time, received vaccinations and saw the hoof trimmer, all costs that should be accounted for in the cost of production of that waste milk.
- Other considerations
- Handling – moving milk from where it is collected to where it is fed requires a tank, a transport vehicle and someone’s time. The tank must be cleaned and sanitized between uses.
- Timing – It can be challenging to coordinate milking times and calf feeding times with regard to labor. Milkers and calf feeders all want to get their jobs done and not be waiting for someone else.
- Storage – If milk cannot be taken directly from the parlor to the calf barn, it must be cooled and then reheated prior to feeding. Labor and scheduling again come into play to have warm milk ready when it is feeding time.
- Keeping it clean – Milk is a perfect medium to grow bacteria. A lapse in sanitation protocols can result in a situation in which calves are fed bacteria at every feeding. We have all seen the scours that result when something is missed in the sanitation protocol.
- Biosecurity – Preventing the flow of pathogens from one generation to the next is an important biosecurity concern on dairy farms. When feeding waste milk to calves, it is pooled which allows transfer of pathogens from a single cow to a whole group of calves. Pasteurizing reduces that risk and creates another piece of equipment that must be managed and maintained.
- Supply – While whole milk can be an attractive option, especially when milk replacer costs are high, there should not be enough non-saleable milk to feed all the calves. The variation in supply can lead to inconsistency for the calves and challenges for the feeders needing to calculate how much to pull from the tank or mix from replacer.
- Nutrient content – while milk is an excellent source of many nutrients, it does not meet all the vitamin and mineral requirements of a growing calf. Whole milk fortifiers can be used to add these important nutrients. The high fat-to-protein ratio of whole milk can reduce starter intake requiring the calf to take longer to achieve the rumen development necessary for successful weaning.
- Supplements – Many calf raisers add supplements to their whole milk to provide the benefits of probiotics, prebiotics, fatty acids, MOS products and other nutraceuticals. These costs should be considered in the total cost of a whole milk feeding program.
- Consistency – The solids percentage can vary dramatically when using non-saleable milk depending on the animals that are in the treated pen. Milk balancers can be used to increase solids so the calf gets more nutrients per feeding and/or reduce day-to-day variation.
Milk replacer continues to be an excellent fit for many farms. In addition to the price per bag, one needs to consider the value of a clean, consistent product that can be mixed at the time and in the exact amount that is needed.
- Formulation – The variety of milk replacer fat-to-protein ratios enable the calf raiser to select the product that best fits her goals. Lower fat options encourage earlier starter intake and offer the potential for earlier weaning.
- Supplements – All of the additives you want are in the bag. There’s one product to inventory and no risk of employees forgetting to add or adding too much of an important supplement.
- Convenient – Milk replacer is there when you need it. Calves can be fed regardless of a breakdown in the parlor, a delay in starting the pasteurizer or a batch of milk that had to be dumped. Mix exactly what you need for each feeding.
- Biosecurity – The product comes out of the bag clean. There’s no risk of contamination from an unknown carrier infecting a group of calves.
- Consistency – The powder in the bag is the same every time. The only opportunity for inconsistency lies with the people weighing the powder and water.
- Little infrastructure – The milk replacer mixer is the only piece of equipment that needs to be maintained. Milk can be mixed wherever there’s access to hot and cold water, a scale, and a place to store bags of product.
- Low risk – There’s enough risk in raising calves. Feeding milk replacer is one way to minimize the risks associated with managing whole milk.
Ways to manage the high cost of milk replacer
- “Right-sizing” your heifer operation has been a hot topic in recent years. Today’s dairy farmers do an excellent job creating and raising replacement heifers and no longer need to raise every heifer calf that is born on the farm. Review your data and see if you really need to raise all the heifers that are in the system. How much could you save if you raised fewer heifers?
- Conserve calories – Are your calves clean and dry? Do they have jackets on during the winter? Are they protected from wind and rain? Calves use energy to combat the effects of environmental stress. At $90/bag for milk replacer, is it cheaper to put a jacket on her or have her use calories to stay warm? Wet hair wicks heat away from the calf. Liken it to running the furnace with the door wide open and paying for extra fuel to keep the house warm. A clean, dry calf in a draft-free environment converts feed to growth rather than allowing that energy to escape. Heat stress has a similar effect, so efforts made to manage the environment in the summer saves calories too.
- Wean based on starter intake rather than age. Some calves take off on starter quickly and have rumens that are ready to support them sooner than others. While more challenging to manage than weaning down the row by age, would the savings in milk replacer costs justify the extra effort?
- Evaluate your milk feeding program. How long are calves really on milk? Is it 7 weeks, 8 weeks or has it stretched out to 9 or 10? Do your calves have adequate rumen development to wean earlier? Recent recommendations indicate that a calf’s rumen development is sufficient to meet her nutritional needs without milk when she has consumed a minimum of 0.25 lbs. of starter for 21 days. Find a scoop that holds ¼ lb. and use that for young calves. Note the date that she cleans the pail and, assuming she stays healthy and starter intake increases normally, she should be ready to wean about 3 weeks later.
- Feed water 24/7. Water intake and starter intake go hand-in-hand. A calf will drink about four lbs. of water for each pound of calf feed she consumes and that water in the rumen is critical for rumen development. Choosing not to provide water prolongs the time she needs milk replacer.
- What does an extra week on milk replacer cost? Assuming a bag of milk replacer costs $90 and you are feeding two pounds of powder per day, a week on milk replacer costs $25. That is money well spent on young calves, but if your calves meet starter intake guidelines, consider getting them transitioned to dry feed sooner.
- Protect your investment. That pallet of milk replacer might as well be a stack of hundred-dollar bills. Be careful where you leave it. Broken bags, water damage, and hungry mice are all trying to take your money!
Both whole milk and milk replacer feeding programs can raise productive cows. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and the right one is the method that works best on your farm. While both calf feeding programs are expensive right now, there are risks and costs that should be carefully considered before making a change. Your Form-A-Feed representative can help you evaluate your options.