Raising a healthy and productive cow begins at the time a calf is born.
Immediately after birth, dairy producers allow calves to suckle colostrum, which is essential to build immunity as the milk has antibodies or immunoglobins, protein, fat, minerals and essential vitamins.
As time progresses, the rate of absorbing immunoglobulins or albumin content begins to decline.
A calf’s rate of absorption immediately after birth is 16.92 per cent, then it decreases to 8.98 per cent at 12 hours and 2.63 per cent at 24 hours as revealed by research.
This progression shows colostrum turning into milk and thus, urgency in feeding is necessary.
Colostrum is given up to about five days of age, thereafter there should be change in the calf’s diet to raw milk from the dam (calf’s mother). Some farmers opt for milk replacers, a trend that is picking up.
Why go for milk replacers?
Milk replacers are nutritionally customised products that closely mimic the chemical and physical properties of milk when reconstituted.
Mother Nature intended that calves be raised on cow’s raw milk due to its proteins, fats, amino and fatty acid profiles, lactose, vitamins, minerals, trace elements and overall digestibility.
However, sometimes this is not possible. Some farmers, on the other hand, have changed their preferred calf-raising system, choosing to sell raw milk and raise calves, especially bulls, on milk replacers.
The economics of feeding milk replacers lies in the price of the product, feeding rate, attainment of weaning age, calf starter intake and labour costs involved measured against its performance aspects of keeping calves in excellent health, attaining optimum growth and becoming strong.
Choosing a milk replacer
Decision should be made after analysing the cost versus expected performance of the calf. Is a cheaper milk replacer worth the risk of a lower growth rate or poorer calf health and performance?
Currently, there are many milk replacers in the market. As a first guide, there is a manufacturer’s label on the product’s package, which you need to pay attention to.
If a product misses the label, this is a good indicator of poor quality.
On the label, look for nutritional facts; which are the ingredients, nutrient composition and estimated growth rate.
An ideal milk replacer has a minimum of 20 per cent protein and the most common fat content of 18-22 per cent that are highly digestible.
Natural milk proteins (which dams’ milk offer) are more expensive than non-milk proteins, which are what some milk replacers are made of.
Manufactures are now switching from use of non-milk protein to preferred milk proteins to improve the product for calves to have better growth rates.
In other words, on the label, look for words like whey, skimmed milk and casein or whey protein. Such adjustments make the final product expensive, so don’t cut corners and buy a cheaper brand.
Many replacers also contain other acceptable additives that will help the calf gain weight, are easily digestible and reduce chances of bovine infections.
However, good nutrition and better calf performance is linked to more than just the protein and fat levels in milk replacers, so look out for more including having a preferably cream colour with a pleasant odour.
Reconstituting and feeding
Buying a good milk replacer is not all, factors like reconstituting, feeding interval, amount fed in each feeding and the feeding temperature need to be controlled for optimum calf performance.
To reconstitute the replacer to milk, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Don’t try to ‘stretch’ the milk by diluting it further.
In most scenarios, the powder is dissolved in a little amount of water followed by adding the remaining water at room temperature until the optimum drinking temperature is reached, which is 39°C.
During mixing, the product should dissolve easily. Mix thoroughly until all the powder forms a solution or suspension without clumps on the surface or at the bottom.
When ready, it should be fed at regular intervals just like milk, according to the calf’s weight. As a rule of the thumb, calves need to drink milk at 10 per cent of their bodyweight.
That is, a calf weighing 40kg needs four litres per day (divide this feeding into equal two times).
Dos and don’ts when using milk replacers
Feeding milk replacers should be consistent to meet the growth and development targets of a calf.
Avoid switching from one replacer to the other since consistency is key.
Nonetheless, a low quality product and poor management during feeding leads to indigestion and calf scours.
Only high quality reputable milk replacers should be used to guarantee its benefits.
Overfeeding and underfeeding can lead to nutritional excesses and deficiencies respectively, which are detrimental.
Feed right amounts as prescribed otherwise health problems and poor growth rates may arise. Also keep milk replacers in safe places to avoid spoilage by rodents.
In conclusion, milk replacers are a feasible option for dairy farmers to successfully rear healthy calves.
However, the decision whether to use them or not depends on what works best in your management and economic situations.
Success largely depends on quality, handling practices and feeding concepts.
Why calves are important on any dairy farm
Calves are the foundation on which the future of any dairy enterprise is built.
If good replacement heifers are to be found, the management of calves must be effective.
Calf management starts even before it is born to the time she is weaned.
With good feeding regime and routine practices, death cases are reduced even at the time when she is being born.