Written by Rick Dumm, DVM
Frankly, it is a little embarrassing to even type out the title of this short essay. Another recent headline in a trade magazine read, “In a Pinch, Dump Milk can be Fed to Calves”. Who would have ever dreamt that an industry with a foundation built on milk would have to question the product’s value for calves or express surprise that milk offers an alternative to current practices. Have we lost our way? The calf must think so with some of the products we expect it to eat.
Decades of research, growth charts, nutritional short-cuts, minimalistic feeding and even so-called Intensified Feeding Regimes have left us missing the tree in the forest. Calves are designed to drink milk and equipped to process it better than ANY other food product we can put into them. These babies need milk.
Granted, the reasons that we remove pathogens from milk before offering it for human consumption echo the needs for treating our calf milk with the same caution. Milk is the healthiest, most well-balanced nutritional drink known to man … which is why bacteria and other pathogens thrive there as well. Whether we are talking about non-saleable milk or raw milk straight from the bulk tank, when properly pasteurized and offered to the calf on an appropriate meal plan, there is not a better strategy.
What many consider to be intensified feeding is really just a 10-letter word for normal. There is one word that defines why we find ourselves gingerly skirting around this topic: EXPENSE. For many decades, our entire focus as an industry viewed the calf as an expense. Thankfully, research from Dr. Michael Van Amburgh and Dr. Michael Steele has led us back to colostrum and milk as the cornerstones for tremendous calf health and growth. We now see the calf as an opportunity to invest rather than an expensive seedling that we are waiting for 2 years to bear fruit.
Proper colostrum management will set the calf up for development of its organ systems to reach their full genetic potential … literally by acting on the genes themselves. This optimizes future milk production, immunity, digestion of nutrients and all other health functions. When we follow a strong colostrum program with a diet of whole milk the results are indisputable. Future milk and health functions pay back each dollar invested by 20X. This is a conservative estimate. In some cases, the return is 50X. Money not your main motivation? How about seeing more live calves on the farm and spending fewer precious hours each day treating sick calves.
Fortunately, these are practices that all dairies can afford to try. You already have the raw ingredients to make it a success. Pasteurization technology is affordable and available for all farm sizes. It doesn’t matter if milk is $10 or $20. This investment in the calf is too important to for the future of the dairy.