Can You Still Afford To Feed Milk Replacer?

Posted: March 1, 2007

In recent months milk replacer costs have jumped $15 to $20 per bag, and we have entered into somewhat new territory in the economics of calf feeding systems.

Since its introduction in the 1950s, one of the major advantages to feeding milk replacer has been a reduced cost compared to feeding whole, salable milk. But with milk replacer costs exceeding $60 per bag for standard products containing 20 percent protein, 20 percent fat and all-milk protein, the cost advantage is quickly eroding.

Since June 2006 prices for whey protein concentrate containing 34 percent protein (WPC-34) have more than doubled from $0.58/lb to over $1.48/lb (April 2007 average). The average for May will probably be over $1.52/lb. To put this in perspective, over the past 10 years the price of WPC-34 has hovered around $0.60/lb. Dried whey prices have followed a similar pattern. These two ingredients are the primary sources of protein in all-milk formula milk replacer. The price of WPC is driven by growing demand for use in human foods, both in the US and around the world. On the positive side, whey prices are used to set Federal Order minimums, and increased demand for whey products has contributed to increase milk prices.

There are several options to reduce feed costs for calves on milk. Each has pros and cons, and it is important to consider the goals of your calf rearing program in addition to obvious cash costs. Possible options include switching to alternative proteins in milk replacer, feeding whole milk from the bulk tank, and feeding waste milk. A more detailed discussion of these options can be found in the "Milk Replacer Costs and Your Options" publication at

In addition to changes in feed, this is a perfect opportunity to adjust weaning age. If you currently wean calves at any age over 5 to 6 weeks, you are spending more money on milk replacer than is required. Herds with excellent calf management can push weaning age, and the associated feed costs, even lower with great success. For more information on early weaning strategies, visit and download the "Early Weaning Strategies" publication. We have developed a simple spreadsheet to evaluate the cost of feeding whole milk compared to feeding milk replacer. The spreadsheet calculates the cost per pound of dry matter fed and also provides a comparison of the amount of nutrients provided by each feed. This tool is available at:

An example comparison is shown in the table. In this example, feeding salable milk instead of milk replacer would save $0.18 per calf each day. If weaning occurred at 8 weeks, that would be slightly more than $10 per calf. However, you can also see that reducing weaning age from 8 weeks to 5 weeks would save over $33 per calf if milk replacer was fed, or $29 if feeding milk. Of course, some of this savings would be required to pay for the extra calf starter eaten after weaning, but 1 pound of dry matter from milk replacer costs 4 to 5 times more than 1 pound of dry matter from calf starter.

High milk replacer costs can be managed in several ways. Take a few minutes to calculate the costs associated with your current feeding strategies and weigh the alternatives. You may find that it is time to make a change.

Example: Comparison of costs to feed calves whole milk or milk replacer.

Whole Milk¹ Milk Replacer² Milk Advantage³
Cost of feed $16.30/cwt $63 per 50-lb bag
Daily amount fed/calf 1 gallon (8.6 lb) 1.25 lb powder
Cost/lb dry matter $1.30 $1.33 $0.03
Daily dry matter fed/calf 1.08 lb 1.19 lb
Daily cost/calf $1.40 $1.58 $0.18
Milk cost/calf to wean at 5 weeks $49.00 $55.30 $6.30
Milk cost/calf to wean at 6 weeks $58.80 $66.36 $7.56
Milk cost/calf to wean at 8 weeks $78.40 $88.48 $10.08
¹Assumptions: milk contains 12.5 percent dry matter, 3.0 percent true protein, and 3.5 percent fat.
²Assumptions: milk replacer is a 20 percent protein, 20 percent fat, all-milk protein product with 95 percent dry matter.
³Milk will provide an additional 0.02 lb of protein and 0.05 lb of fat compared to milk replacer, so calves also may be expected to have some improvement in growth.




Coleen Jones, Dairy and Animal Science Research Associate, and Jud Heinrichs, Professor, Dairy and Animal Science Extension
Department of Dairy and Animal Science