According to Irish Farmers Journal analysis, calf milk replacer is 15% dearer now compared to this time last year. While a 15% increase in costs is substantial, there were times over the last 12 months that milk replacer costs were 30% to 40% higher than last spring. This indicates that the timing of the drop in dairy commodity prices over the last few months has been beneficial to those looking to purchase milk replacer this spring.

Put another way, if most farmers were buying milk replacer last June or July, they could have expected to be paying north of €70 for a 20kg bag. Looking at the table opposite, it’s fair to say that prices for all products have increased compared to this time last year. For example, Maverick AAA from Volac was retailing at €55/bag last year but is now costing €61/bag.

The average cost of mixed milk at 12.5% solids is 38c/l whereas this was 33c/l last year. Multiplying the cost per litre by the number of litres being fed per calf per day will tell you how much it will cost to feed a calf per day depending on what milk replacer product is used. There is a huge variation in prices per litre, ranging from 49c/l to 27c/l.

It’s difficult to identify any differences in quality between milk replacers apart from protein and oil or fat content. It’s important to note that the origins of these proteins is also important because plant- or vegetable-based proteins are harder for the calf to digest compared to dairy-derived proteins. Most proteins in a milk replacer will be derived from dairy, with a certain percentage of vegetable proteins.

Vegetable proteins

Lower-priced milk replacers may contain a higher percentage of vegetable proteins. One way to assess this is by looking at the fibre content of the milk replacer. Milk replacers with a high level of vegetable-derived proteins tend to have higher fibre contents.

Animal Health Ireland (AHI) says fibre content greater than 0.15 in a milk replacer indicates inclusion of plant-based proteins. Ideally, these milk replacers should not be fed to young calves that are not able to digest plant-based proteins. They can be more suited to older calves that are better able to digest solid feeds.

For dairy farmers, decisions will have to be made on whether to buy milk replacer or feed whole milk to calves this spring.

With base milk price still around 58c/l before the additional value of fat and protein is considered, milk replacer looks much cheaper in comparison.

Many dairy farmers who have purchased computerised calf feeders will have no choice but to feed milk replacer.

For other dairy farmers, whether or not to feed milk replacer comes down to more than just price.

Calf performance, Johnes Disease, labour availability and facilities for mixing milk replacers are all issues that need consideration.

In terms of animal performance, comparison should be made on the fat and protein content of whole milk compared to milk replacer.

For example, if feeding 5l per calf per day of whole milk at 3.5% protein the total protein intake will be 175g per calf per day.

If feeding 5l per calf per day of milk replacer at 23% protein and 12.5% solids inclusion rate, the total protein intake will be 144g per calf per day.

To get the same level of protein as in the whole milk, 6.1l of milk replacer would need to be fed, 22% more.