Milk powder: not all proteins are the same

When it comes to calf milk powders, the choice is huge. Nina Hennes, employed at FrieslandCampina Research & Development, is convinced that anyone who looks closely at the rearing of young cattle must understand the quality differences of the powders. An essential nutrient for calves is protein. “What type of protein is offered by the milk powder you feed to your calves?”

Which protein is most suitable for calves?

In the same way that there is a range of milk powders available, there are also various types of protein. The question is what are the best proteins for the youngest calves, a group of animals that naturally deserves the very best. “The best rearing results are achieved with a calf milk powder based on 100% dairy protein. Young animals are best equipped to digest precisely those proteins,” suggested Nina Hennes. “Vegetable-based proteins are an economically attractive alternative, but are less easily digested. Another reasonable alternative is hydrolysed wheat protein, but soya protein, for example, significantly reduces digestibility and has a negative impact on calf growth and health.” So go for 100% dairy protein!

What makes milk powder better than cow’s milk?

100% dairy protein would seem to be an argument in favour of feeding cow’s milk, but as a result of the fluctuations in composition, and the increased risk of disease transmission, cow’s milk is less suitable for feeding to calves, explained Hennes. “In addition, cow’s milk often lacks a number of important minerals, that are constantly available in sufficient quantities in milk powder. These include iron which is essential for oxygen transport and overall resistance.” She also added that the risk of pathogens as a result of health ­problems is increased, if you feed cow’s milk. “The ingredients in calf milk powder are pasteurised, so any germs have been rendered harmless. In addition, health-promoting additives such as prebiotics and probiotics and organic acids are added to milk powder, to improve digestion and to encourage a healthy intestinal system.”

Nina Hennes
Research & Development

What different dairy proteins can be found in milk powder?

The dairy proteins in milk powder may have been extracted from whey, the by-product of cheese production, skimmed milk or from the caseinate left over after butter making. “All three of these sources of protein have different characteristics in the abomasum of the calves,” explained Hennes. “Whey proteins are tiny molecules, pass quickly through the small intestine and are easily and quickly digestible.” The proteins from skimmed milk comprises 80% casein protein, a large molecule that requires a predigest ion stage via clotting in the abomasum under the influence of renin, before it can be absorbed in the small intestine. Digestion is therefore gradual. Caseinate is casein protein which has already undergone a predigestion stage during the processing in the factory. It does still coagulate in the abomasum, however, and as a result this digestion stage is somewhere between that of whey and skimmed milk.

Which protein is best?

In the various trials carried out by FrieslandCampina, no discrepancies were discovered in calf growth and health in a comparison to calf’s milk powder with the same specifications, based on skimmed milk, whey or caseinate. Which type of calf’s milk powder is therefore most suitable? It would depend on the health status of the farm and the preferences of the dairy farmer. In the case of unlimited feeding via buckets or via an automatic drink dispenser, calves will take up smaller portions of milk spread over the day. In these cases, a milk powder based on caseinate or whey is ideally suited. In the case of bucket feeding whereby the animal receives a large volume of milk two times a day, a milk powder based on skimmed milk can deliver excellent results, because that large volume of milk is then gradually digested. However, the question also relates to the health status of a farm. If there are healthy calves on the farm, that have received good colostrum and where the infection burden is low, bucket feeding with large quantities of milk per portion can also be perfectly be combined with a caseinate or whey-based product. It is therefore a question of the farmer’s experience!

How do you know which protein is in your milk powder?

“Check out the label on the bag,” recommends Hennes when dairy farmers are looking to identify the milk powder that best suits them. “The highest volume ingredient in the milk powder is listed first.” “Or consult your feed advisor or the young cattle ­specialist!