Whole milk calf nutrition: The ‘liquid TMR’

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You’ve probably heard or read it 100 times or more – cows love consistency.

Probably the most often-cited call for consistency is in the dairy cow’s diet. Ideally, every bite of the total mixed ration (TMR) should taste the same, contain the same nutrients and be composed of the same particle sizes. But what about the preweaned calf “TMR?” Does this diet deserve the same level of attention?

As it turns out, yes: daily calves need the same degree of consistency in their daily milk feedings. Considering their rapid growth and developing digestive systems, that day-to-day regularity might be even more important for dairy calves.

But if you’re feeding calves whole milk, consistency can be more challenging to achieve. The very nature of whole milk can make it an inconsistent product. Here’s how to evaluate and adjust rations when feeding calves whole milk to deliver the same desired consistency as a lactating cow TMR:

Brix refractometer testing

Just as you should regularly test forages, commodities and byproducts for their nutrient value and moisture levels, every batch of whole milk should be tested and the ration balanced according to the results.

A Brix refractometer is a handy, on-farm testing tool you can use to estimate milk solids content of whole milk in a matter of minutes. Use the Brix refractometer to test every batch before feeding calves whole milk. Be sure to evaluate for milk solids levels before pasteurization and add enhancer products after pasteurization.  

Calf milk supplement

To create a consistent liquid ration containing the ideal level of nutrients for efficient calf growth, whole milk may require supplementation with the following:

  • BalancerThe addition of a balancer can be used to adjust the total solids level and volume of a batch of whole milk. Balancers also are fortified with vitamins and minerals, and may contain coccidiostats and/or larvacides for disease and pest control. As you likely make management changes to help your cows cope with cold and heat stress, balancers can be used to adjust rations to do the same for your calves.
  • Fortifier Whole milk – even at correct solids levels – is deficient in a number of vitamins and trace minerals.[1] Just like a mineral pack added to a TMR, adding a pasteurized milk fortifier can bring these nutrients up to NRC-recommended levels. And, like balancers, fortifiers also can add a coccidiostat and/or feed-through larvacide to the liquid ration.
  • ExtenderSometimes the supply of whole milk you have available is not enough to feed all your calves, especially when providing a full-potential diet. Whole milk extender products are used to increase the volume of balanced whole milk. They also provide a minimal level of vitamins and trace minerals, but are not typically used to change the solids content or the protein-to-fat ratio of the whole milk supply.

A balancer type of product can achieve the objectives of a fortifier and an extender in one calf milk supplement powder.

Monitor calf nutrition and performance

You routinely monitor herd milk production and component levels to measure the success of your lactating cow ration. So, why wouldn’t you do the same for dairy calf performance?

Industry benchmarks recommend doubling calves’ birth weight and growing 4 to 5 inches in stature by 56 days of age.[2] If you find your calves are not hitting your growth and/or weight-gain benchmarks, changes to the “liquid TMR” may be in order. If, for example, dairy calves are hitting weight goals but not stature targets, the milk diet may be too high in fat. In that case, the protein level should be raised, and the fat content lowered, to promote lean tissue growth.  

Routinely weighing and measuring calves can help you assess whether your calf nutrition program is allowing you to reach the growth benchmarks established for the industry and your own calf program goals.

Mix and deliver calf nutrition

Finally, remember much attention in TMR feeding is put on proper mixing and delivery of the carefully balanced ration. The same is true for liquid calf nutrition rations. Be sure to establish and monitor protocols to ensure every batch of pasteurized and enhanced milk is thoroughly mixed, fed at the correct temperature and delivered according to a consistent feeding schedule.

The most successful herds rely on the advice of a nutritionist to help them create, deliver and monitor rations for their cows. That same expertise is equally as important to effectively feed and grow your dairy calves. Together, you and a nutritionist can establish and monitor a feeding program for calves to be every bit as successful as the TMR fueling the lactating herd they will soon enter.

Contact your dealer to give your calves balanced nutrition.



[1] National Research Council. 2001. Nutrient Requirements of Dairy Cattle. 7th ed. Natl. Acad. Press, Washington, DC.

[2] Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards. 2016.