Considerations for Whole Milk Feeding

Given the current economic challenges the dairy industry is facing, it is only natural that dairy producers are trying to get creative with cutting down costs. That, coupled with many producers having to decrease production by some level, has led to an increased curiosity surrounding feeding whole milk to calves. I’m sure you’ve all read something to this extent already or have talked to a trusted advisor, and similarly, I am going to advise that you put considerable thought into this strategy before implementing it. Feeding whole milk to calves can be an excellent, financially favorable strategy but only when managed correctly. Consider some of the following points prior to making any decisions, and please remember to consider the long-term implications of ANY change you may be thinking of making during these challenging times.

  • There is a difference between saleable whole milk and waste milk. Let’s discuss saleable whole milk first. Saleable whole milk contains anywhere from 24-27% protein, and 28-36% fat (on a DM basis) so nutritionally it is a great option for calves. Feeding saleable whole milk can be effective if you have the extra milk – from my experience in Canada, a lot of farms use this strategy if they are over quota and have the extra milk. It is NOT an economically favorable solution if you can sell that milk and are just looking to cut down on milk replacer costs. If saleable milk is fed to calves, it should be collected and stored just as it would if it was being picked up with the rest of the milk – please use the same level of care and cleanliness! Also consider that whole milk can vary greatly day-to-day. Dr. Sarah Morrison at Miner Institute recently wrote an excellent article (page 5) quantifying just how much variation exists in whole milk. With that in mind, it is encouraged to use a refractometer to keep track of total solids content and make sure the solids content isn’t creeping past 13%. This is actually a good strategy for both milk replacer and whole milk fed calves! Dr. Rob Lynch has created a helpful article highlighting how Brix refractometers can be used to monitor calf health, please see Dr Lynch’s article for more information on how to use a refractometer to measure total solids content.
  • Non-saleable milk, or waste milk, can come from a variety of different sources (fresh cows, treated cows, cows with high somatic cell counts etc.,). Many farms feed waste milk to their calves as it appears to be an economically favorable alternative to just dumping the milk; in fact, the 2014-2015 NAHMS survey reported that whole or waste milk feeding represented 40.1% of all calves, or 43.3% of operations (Urie et al., 2018). However, several considerations should be kept in mind when feeding waste milk. Decades of research has supported the theory that waste milk can greatly increase the calf’s risk of being exposed to disease causing pathogens such as Coli, Salmonella, Streptococcus, and Staphylococcus which ultimately results in greater risk of becoming sick and having poorer performance later in life (Edrington et al., 2018). Waste milk from cows treated with antibiotics can also damage the calf’s gut and make her more resistant to antibiotics later in life (Li et al., 2019). Additionally, if treated wasted milk is fed to bull calves, or calves that may be slaughtered shortly after consuming the milk, you may risk having antibiotic residues present in the tissues which can result in major food safety violations. In order to avoid some of the risks associated with waste milk feeding, producers can pasteurize the milk on farm and thereby greatly reduce the pathogen load. The 2014-2015 NAHMS survey further reported that of those operations feeding whole or waste milk, 36.5% of farms pasteurized the milk and 21.2% of farms monitored bacterial counts (Urie et al., 2018). Below is a table with the average pathogen levels in raw milk compared to pasteurized whole milk on farms in various locations (Bovine Alliance on Management and Nutrition, 2008).Photo source: Feeding Pasteurized Milk to Dairy Calves; Bovine Alliance on Management and Nutrition, 2008


  • Pasteurizing milk comes with the obvious financial investment of purchasing a pasteurizer. Penn State Extension has an excellent resource comparing the cost of different feeding programs. I recognize and understand that this may not be the best time to make such a substantial financial investment, but it is something to strongly consider. Below is a picture of the table Penn State shared summarizing the cost comparison (please refer to the original article to understand more details about their cost assumptions)

Photo source: Penn State Extension; Cost Comparison of Various Calf Feeding Programs

  • Additionally, Penn State Extension has a spreadsheet to evaluate the cost of feeding whole milk (with pasteurization) compared to milk replacer. I am happy to assist with the calculations and walk you through the numbers, please reach out to me if you need assistance! As I mentioned, I recognize that pasteurization is an additional financial consideration which may seem counter intuitive to the idea of feeding waste milk in the first place, but dozens of experts in the industry have strongly advised farms DO NOT feed waste milk unless it has been pasteurized. While it may seem like an additional financial hurdle at this time, it is important to consider the future health and productivity of that heifer. After all, heifers are an investment and in order to see the return later in her life, you have to manage her well from day 1.
  • If you do decide to feed whole milk to calves, please do it gradually. Calves are picky, and have sensitive stomachs so to reduce the risk of digestive upset and/or the calf refusing the milk, start slow. One strategy is to mix milk replacer with the whole milk for the first couple of feedings to ease the calf onto the new diet. Don’t get discouraged if she doesn’t take to it right away, it may take time!
  • Pay attention to the temperature. Milk replacer is usually mixed and fed around 105°F, and whole milk should be fed around 90-100° You don’t have to be exact with these temperatures but keep in mind it should be fed as close to body temperature as possible.

In summary, whole milk feeding can be an effective strategy given that the aforementioned points are taken into consideration. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you would like more information on this topic, or require assistance putting a plan into action. As always, I am happy to help calculate feeding rates and help you come up with a plan that will help the future of your herd!