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Which milk type should you feed?

My columns on bottle- vs. bucket-feeding calves piqued much interest in the dairy community (see accompanying sidebar). Inevitably, the conversations steered to one question. What should we be feeding our calves: whole milk, transition milk, treated/waste milk or milk replacer?

Before I jump into this topic, I feed fresh, whole, saleable Jersey milk to my calves. It’s saleable raw milk from the bulk tank, or saved out of the milking system to feed calves.

Key Points

• Saleable whole raw milk may be the best liquid calf feed.

• Be extremely careful about using treated milk — even when it’s pasteurized.

• Transition milk is a win-win for both the calf and the producer.

Pasteurization isn’t an equalizer

Treated milk is that which isn’t saleable because the cow has been treated with antibiotics or other meds that require withholding milk from the bulk tank. Transition milk is milk from fresh cows transitioning from colostrum to whole milk. The latter can also fit into the treated/waste milk category since it can contain antibiotic residues if that cow was dry-treated.

Treated milk seems like a free milk source, but should be used cautiously. It tends to have higher concentrations of bacteria, even after pasteurization. It may pose a significant disease risk.

It also tends to be less palatable than whole milk. A University of Illinois study found greater refusals with it compared to whole milk and milk replacer.

Feeding milk that contains antibiotics to calves that don’t need antibiotics may destroy the natural flora of the gut. And that milk may set up the animal for an infection by resistant pathogens.

Pasteurizing treated milk can reduce risk. But it’s not as effective as pasteurizing whole milk. On the other hand, a Minnesota experiment found that calves fed pasteurized treated milk grew faster, weaned earlier, weighed more at weaning, and had greater feed efficiency compared to calves fed commercial milk replacer.

It all comes down to this: Know your cows!

Those that are shedding bovine viral diarrhea or Johne’s disease can infect all your calves. If there’s any chance your cows are shedding pathogens that can infect calves, don’t feed that milk.

The ‘don’t do’ list

Here are five “don’t dos,” and the reasons why:

• Don’t allow waste milk to sit at room temperature for extended periods. It can spike the microbial load tremendously.

• Don’t use treated milk from the first milking after antibiotic treatment, especially after treating a quarter. This milk contains too much antibiotic, and is especially important if you’re feeding bull calves before sending them to market.

• Don’t use milk that’s excessively bloody or appears unusual. This milk probably contains active pathogens and other “stuff” that might not be well-digested by a calf’s sensitive system.

• Don’t feed waste milk to group-housed calves. Group calves that suck on each other after drinking waste milk might infect each other with pathogens in treated milk.

• Don’t feed milk from cows infected with E. coli or Pasteurella. These bacteria might still be in the milk and could possibly infect the calf’s intestine.

So what about transition milk?

Transition milk, by itself, is an excellent liquid feed. It’s cow’s milk from the second milking after calving up to 72 hours later (three days).

Milk from the second and third milkings is especially valuable milk for very young calves. It has about one-third the antibody content of colostrum.

While these antibodies won’t be absorbed into the calf’s blood, they coat the small intestine. And they prevent pathogens from invading and destroying intestinal cells. Transition milk may also help the intestine adjust to changes in solids concentration in liquid feed, as calves move from colostrum to whole milk or milk replacer.

We’re under rising public pressure to reduce use of feed-grade antibiotics. So, feeding milk from treated cows is hard to justify.

Stay tuned for next month’s discussion of milk vs. milk replacer.

Carson and husband Steve partner in Harkdale Farms of Newbury, Vt. She’s also a professor at Vermont Technical College.

Bottle babes versus bucket

June’s “Start calves ‘on the bottle’ ” article generated much interest. Labor costs and available time are big issues.

A couple of large herds (300 to 1,000 cows) in my area have been feeding bottles only (no bucket training at four weeks of age) for quite some time.

The calf feeders contend that the decrease in sick calves, and the time it takes to treat them plus the reduction in mortality, is definitely worth bottle feeding. Depending on what they use to treat calves — drugs, electrolytes, etc — costs can be significantly reduced.

If someone who feeds 100 calves a day could feed all bottles, it was worth me giving it a try. They also claim they can wean calves earlier, because of fewer incidents of illness and better growth rates in the first 6 to 8 weeks of life. Put that all together, and it seems likely that it’s a wash between labor-efficient bucket feeding and healthy calves.

I’m not sure it takes that much more extra time, at least for me and my 20 calves. It still takes about an hour at both ends of the day to do a good job.

Keep in mind that we knew that the buckets used for milk and water were a source of Cryptosporidium scours exposure. When calves were trained to buckets between 4 and 5 weeks old, they didn’t get crypto.

— Vicky Carson


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up and HUNGRY: Liquid calf feed choices boil down to the health of the milk source.

This article published in the August, 2010 edition of AMERICAN AGRICULTURIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.