Bottle Calves — Raw Milk vs. Milk Replacer

When you are raising bottle calves, the most important decision that you must make is whether to feed them on milk replacer or on raw milk. This decision is sometimes made for you, if you can’t get access to raw milk. Here are some of the factors that you should consider when you are deciding how to feed your calves.

bottle_fed_jersey_calfOne of our Jersey calves feeding on raw milk from a bucket with nipples. Our girls named her Taco because she always turns her head while eating.


Before a cow even gives birth, her udder begins to create a thick yellowish liquid called colostrum. This liquid is loaded with antibodies to help the calf get off to a great start in life. It boosts the calf’s immune system to protect the baby from all the bacteria in its surroundings. It is crucial that your calf gets this “liquid gold” in the first 12 hours of its life. Calves that don’t get colostrum are much more likely to get sick and die. If for some reason you can’t get colostrum from its mother, try to get some frozen colostrum from another farmer. As a last resort, you can buy colostrum replacers from veterinary supply companies. However, these products are never as good as the colostrum that came directly from a cow.

bottle_feeding_calfOur very first Jersey bull calf is having raw milk from a bottle. This milk was hand milked into a pail and then poured into a bottle.

Raw Milk

Mother Nature intended that calves be raised on the milk of cows. For the healthiest calf, he needs raw milk. If you are really desperate, you could buy gallons of homogenized store milk and feed your calf that, but it would get quite expensive. Additionally, the pasteurization process eliminates good, helpful bacteria and naturally occurring enzymes in the milk that would be very beneficial to your calf’s gut health.


The best substance to feed your newborn calf is raw milk. Raw milk, whether from your cows or from another dairy’s cows, is exactly what the calf needs to grow up big, strong, and healthy. A Jersey cow will give a greater percentage of cream in her milk, putting weight on an otherwise scrawny calf. The enzymes in raw milk will aid the calf’s digestive process, and the calf will also be exposed to good bacteria which will populate its gut flora and boost its immune system.

Milk Replacer

With all that raw milk has going for it, why would you ever choose to feed a calf milk replacer? Well, sometimes, you just have no other choice. Some farmers need to sell their raw milk or their cows have health issues that prevent them from giving enough milk to raise calves.

Just as women who raise babies on infant formula rather than breast milk can have healthy babies, a calf can be fairly healthy when raised on milk replacer. Good quality milk replacer is really expensive. Don’t cut corners and buy a cheaper brand. Check the label to see where the vitamins, protein, and fat are coming from. For the best quality, you want milk-derived products in your milk replacer. In other words, look for words like whey, skimmed milk, casein, or whey protein. Second best is a milk replacer with soy protein, but avoid soy flour because it is simply starchy filler. Try to avoid any milk replacers that have animal plasma or fish protein concentrate listed as an ingredient. Animal plasma and fish concentrates are derived from animal blood and fish parts, and cows are herbivores; they shouldn’t be fed animal products.

The Bovine Alliance on Management and Nutrition has an excellent free guide online to help you evaluate the quality of your milk replacer. This guide breaks down obscure jargon and nutritional facts so that you will know exactly what you are feeding your calf.

Pay attention to how the label instructs you to mix the milk replacer and don’t try to “stretch” the milk by diluting it. Feed the calf according to its weight. Over feeding milk replacer can give the calf diarrhea. Divide his feedings into two or three equal bottles and spread them out through the day.

Some milk replacer brands tell you that you can wean a calf as early as six weeks. While you can do this, your calf will be healthier if you can give it two bottles per day for six weeks and at least one bottle a day for a minimum of three months.

However you decide to feed your calf, remember to warm up its bottle to about 100 degrees. Never, ever feed a calf cold milk. Additionally, be sure to hold the bottle low so that the calf’s head doesn’t come above his shoulders. Holding a bottle too high can cause a calf to aspirate milk into his lungs, giving him pneumonia.


Farmer Guy July 20, 2014 Jersey Calves