There are many benefits of feeding transition milk to dairy heifer calves.

Transition milk is defined as the milk from the second to the sixth milkings, so it’s not colostrum but it’s not whole milk either. So why should you consider feeding it? While the nutritional value is not as good as colostrum, it is nutritionally superior to whole milk and many calf milk replacers.

Although the composition of transition milk can be variable, it contains higher levels of milk solids compared to whole milk or milk replacer and so is higher in energy.

It also contains significantly higher levels of antibodies, hormones and bio-active compounds that aid gut development and health (see table).

(Image: Web)

We know that antibody absorption in the calf’s gut is negligible after 24 hours. However, the antibodies in transition milk will continue to provide localised protection to the gut wall after colostrum feeding. This will be particularly beneficial if vaccinating cows for the common causes of calf scour.

Other beneficial compounds in transition milk include IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) and lactoferrin. IGF-1 is a hormone partly responsible for intestinal development and lactoferrin is a protein involved in iron transport, immune system support (it is a natural antioxidant) and has anti-microbial and anti-viral properties.

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Research has shown that calves fed transition milk for four days after colostrum feeding have a better developed gut, with increased surface area of the small intestine allowing for more nutrient absorption, compared to calves receiving calf milk replacer after colostrum feeding.

The calves fed transition milk had improved daily live weight gains in the pre-weaning period and this could not be solely attributed to the increased energy in transition milk compared to the milk replacer. Therefore, the improved gut development and greater nutrient absorption capacity was also partly responsible for the higher weight gains.

Various studies looking at feeding transition milk to calves have reported growth rate improvements of around 10% and in one study, up to 300g per day more.

Boost calf health with nutrient-rich transition milkBoost calf health with nutrient-rich transition milk (Image: web)

In addition, calves fed transition milk also have also been shown to have improved health (eye, ear and nasal) scores and a lower incidence of scours.

With transition milk being a waste product and not going for human consumption, its use can help save on milk replacer costs, once adequate colostrum has been fed.

While feeding transition milk at six litres per day for just four days could save £9 per calf (based on calf milk replacer at £2500/t and feeding six litres at a 15% inclusion), bear in mind the additional costs for labour and equipment for collecting, storing, reheating and feeding transition milk.

The benefits of feeding transition milk must be carefully weighed up against the disease risks from the health status of the herd and the risk will be higher if the milk is not pasteurised.

The pooling of transition milk should be avoided if Johne’s disease is known to be present in the herd.

In addition, effective cleaning and disinfection must be carried out for equipment used for collecting, storing and feeding the milk to reduce bacterial contamination and risk of poor health.

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