By Debbie James

Growing awareness of the Johne’s disease transmission risk to calves through feeding whole milk is encouraging more farmers to feed calf milk replacer (CMR).

Volac, which manufactures 40,000 tonnes of whey-based CMR at its Felinfach plant, says more than half of all dairy and beef farmers in Great Britain now rear their youngstock on CMR.

Volac-commissioned research involving 644 farmers revealed that 58 per cent of dairy calves and 52 per cent of beef calves are reared on CMR compared to a combined average of just 15 per cent 10 years ago.

Farm vet Dave Gilbert, who analysed the results for Volac, says as well as the Johne’s tramission risk, the threat of antimicrobial resistance from feeding waste milk produced by cows treated with antibiotics is also a factor in this trend.

The survey showed that 20 per cent of milk producers and 28 per cent of beef farmers feed non-transition milk, potentially contaminated with antibiotic residues. “This practice just can’t continue,’’ Mr Gilbert insists.

“Feeding healthy transition milk is a very different to the more traditional practice of feeding milk that is unsaleable.’’

Although there has been a threefold shift towards more controlled feeding, Mr Gilbert says there remains a significant number of farmers who are “blissfully unaware’’ of the risks of whole milk feeding.

“I am not saying that it is all bad but it is important that farmers are aware of the challenges of antimicrobial resistance and the spread of endemic diseases.’’

He believes herd expansion is another underlying reason why more farmers now feed CMR.

“Scale is a driver here, the bigger the scale the bigger the impact decisions on feeding have.

“The dairy farmers I work with today are very different to those I dealt with in 2007; I am not saying there isn’t more scope for change but the majority of clients are now much more efficient and switched on.’’

The survey shows that overall ingredient quality in CMRs is a key feature for farmers.

Growth in herd size has made it more commonplace for calves to be reared off-farm.

“Transporting 200 litres of milk a mile up the road is very different to bucketing milk 20 yards across the farmyard,’’ Mr Gilbert suggests.

He believes challenges around milk prices have forced dairy farmers to focus on business performance; as such, they are now more aware of where efficiencies can be found.

“With the exception of a terrifyingly low milk price it is almost always cheaper to feed calf milk replacer than to take milk, a saleable asset, from the bulk tank.’’

According to Volac’s Global Product Manager Niall Jaggan, even when milk prices were at their lowest, the company had not experienced a dip in sales of CMR.

“We had been forecasting significant reductions but the tonnage overall was remarkably stable,’’ says Mr Jaggan.