Check The Ingredients of Your Calf Milk Replacer…NOW!

 I am fortunate to have a network of Ranch Wives that get together every day on Facebook to discuss just about everything under the sun about life on their ranches.  From husbands putting the truck into the ditch feeding cows for the umpteenth time, to best branding meal recipes, to cows calving, no topic is off limits on the Ranch Wives page.   The subject of calf milk replacers came up last year during calving season and one ranch wife had had some serious issues with her orphan calves.

 Last year, an El Dorado County California ranch wife, Maria Neilsen, shared her story about her bottle raised calves the last two calving seasons.   She generally has a good number of calves that are orphaned for one reason or another, so they are fed via bottle of milk replacer from the local feed store until they can be grafted onto a new cow.  Her orphan calves were getting sick with a variety of symptoms: major scours, colic-like bloat with teeth grinding, lethargy, shivering, lack of appetite and severe weight loss.  Her first response to defend these symptoms would be what any other rancher would do—treatment with oral calf scour pills and antibiotics.  But when this made absolutely no difference on the calves’ health, she began to ask more questions and demand answers.  The results were something that is well known to most animal nutritionists as well as those who produce milk replacer and the dairy industry, but sadly is not to most of us that use milk replacer to bottle feed our orphan calves: that many reputable brands of calf milk replacer are soy protein based rather than milk protein based, and neonatal ruminants such as calves cannot digest soy, and soy stops their body from absorbing nutrients from soy or anything else consumed with it.  Young calves must have all milk protein milk replacer to thrive when being fed on a bottle.  Maria’s account below is quite lengthy and detailed, but contains information that can saves the lives of calves who depend on milk replacer for their nutritional needs.   If nothing else, CHECH THE INGREDIENTS OF YOUR CALF MILK REPLACER and KNOW WHAT you are feeding!

Beware of alternative (soy) proteins in calf milk replacers—By Maria Neilsen

  As a rancher’s wife I feel like I have seen it all in the last 21 years. I have been here on our family’s working cattle ranch in the foothills of El Dorado County in CA.  We are now in the 6th generation on this ranch and we all work hard to keep our cattle healthy and thriving like most working ranchers do.  I bottle feed twins or orphans or the occasional calf that is struggling for any number of reasons in the winter months on our ranch.  We calve in Nov-Feb/ March and we then graft those calves onto a cow or heifer that has a dead calf for any number of reasons.  So, I have quite an important job with my babies.  I can have sometimes up to around 18-25 calves in a season come thru my calf pens. In all my experiences, I have never seen what I experienced in the last two winters 2011-2012 and 2012 -2013. 

  I had been using the same very reputable brand of calf milk replacer for the last 10 years, and used to have several to choose from at our two local feed stores, but in the last 10 years they just carried one.  I have raised many a calf on that brand of milk replacer and never had any troubles other than the usual once in a while scour calf.  So, when I thought we had a severe strain of scours and we could not seem to get a handle on it, our local vet suggested that we do some testing at the State Vet Hospital of UC Davis in Davis, CA.  We knew the state vet at the time, and he had helped us before with some problems we had with cattle and acorns.  He was very helpful and we started sending in samples – fecal, some blood and eventually necropsies, since we started losing calves.  It seemed that every calf that came to my pens all got the same symptoms.  Colic- like behavior started with bloating and teeth grinding, lethargy, shivering, lack of appetite, major diarrhea, loss of weight. Some I could manage to keep going by unbloating daily, but even they eventually died and the results of their tests and necropsies were malnutrition, organ failure and anemia.  They looked like starved children.  Very sad and hard to watch– we tried every known remedy we could find.  Using mineral oil and castor oil seemed to break down the gas and make their gut move so that was my standby, but we also tried raw eggs, charcoal and yogurt for extra nutrition and to aid with the diarrhea. We went thru so much product it was unbelieveable. We also tried treating the scours with pills, anitbiotics, probiotics and electrolytes.  Nothing worked.  I had calves that were days old, hours old,  weeks old, and months old, so I had all kinds of scenarios and all were affected with the same symptoms once they came into my calf pen.  At some point when the tests were coming back negative for any of the diseases that cause diarrhea in neonatal ruminants (calves), the vet asked,  “what are you feeding them?”

 I told him our brand of milk replacer, and he asked if they got well as soon as they got on a cow – Yes, they did.  Since we graft some onto a new cow that lost her calf for whatever reason, those calves that got a new mother got well almost instantly.  But, I was so sure it was a nasty bug that I never even thought about what I was feeding them since I had used this product for many years.  He said that milk replacer companies change their ingredients all the time based on economics and what is cheaper and available.  I laughed and read the label.  He said the crude fiber was way too high at 1%  –  the protein and fat levels should be 20% or higher and the crude fiber level should be .15% or lower.  So he said filler.  Well, I never read the label any further cause I was sure it was a bad bug and we still continued on with the testing.  Nothing came back conclusive except the malnutrition and anemia and organ failure on the two calves that I kept alive for months which finally they died. I had one last calf that I got late and she was a twin and she showed the same symptoms of the calves before her  – I was devastated.  He told me buy some whole cow’s milk in the grocery store, and get that calf off the powdered milk replacer,  NOW!!!  I did and in four bottles she went from dying, to running and bucking, and normal poops, and became a healthy, thriving, calf.

 I started buying raw goats milk since I had no other powdered milk choices at the time for calves.  She thrived.  The milk replacer company I complained to said it was probably the soy alternative proteins in the milk replacer.  I started researching this subject and have come up with this info to help others who find themselves in my position with calves and wonder what is wrong.  Read the ingredients and see if you have Soy in your milk replacers.  I thought it was just calf milk replacer, but now I am finding it in lamb and goat and foal and multi species formulas as well.  BEWARE!!!   Calves cannot tolerate it (why is coming later in the article).  I got confirmation from a top nutritionist in the company I complained to that THEY know better, yet the cheaper, poorer quality stuff typically ends up in the feed stores. He thanked me for educating my feed store and others.  The feed store, after I convinced them with my information to send that cheaper product back, said the company wanted to know why.  I am compelled to share this lengthy story in hopes of educating other ranchers and farmers and backyard people that want to raise a healthy happy calf.  What do they need…ALL MILK PROTEINS!!!!

WHY can they NOT digest SOY in the calf milk replacer???

Calves are born with a complex and immature digestive system.  They have the physical attributes of a ruminant, a reticulum, rumen, omasum and abomasum–the four chambers of the stomach.  But until these first three stomachs are developed, a calf is considered a monogastric because only the abomasum is functioning, which also means they are unable to process or digest complex carbohydrates or cellulose into nutrients.  In fact, a newborn or young calf’s early feedings of colostrum, milk or milk replacer are shunted directly past the first three stomachs and into the abomasum via the esophageal groove.  The abomasum is the main digestive organ in early life. The rumen in a newborn to young calf is nonfunctioning.  It begins growing around weeks 3-4, depending on when grain and calf starter along with fresh water and milk it receives from the cow or the bottle.  The rumen grows rapidly and during the first 5-6 months and is considered fully functioning around 6-9 months.  As a bottle calf, you can jump start the rumen with fresh water and calf starter, NOT hay at an early age.  This will help develop the bacteria and microbes needed to break down foods to digest and utilize in their diet.  But at first they need all milk proteins from cow’s milk or milk replacer containing several of these ingredients: Skimmed milk, Dried Whey Protein, Whey Protein Concentrate, Dried Whey, Dried Whey product, Casein, Buttermilk or Dried Milk Proteins.  They all come from the milk and cheese industry.  They are the most important and also expensive part of the Milk Replacers.  The milk goes into the abomasum via the esophageal groove when a calf sucks a bottle or the cow.  Within ten minutes the milk forms a clot, which it can only do when you have all milk proteins, in the abomasum from the coagulation of milk proteins. It does this with the enzymes rennin and pepsin and hydrochlonic acid in the abomasum.  Other milk components, primarily whey proteins, lactose {sugar}, and most minerals separate from the curd or clot and rapidly pass into the small intestine.  The lactose is digested quickly and provides immediate energy.  The all milk proteins and fat, from animal fat, in the clot or curd are then slowly absorbed by the blood stream over the next 12-18 hours.  They are only designed for all milk proteins and at this young age and for months can NOT digest SOY or alternative plant based proteins.  Those will instead sit in their gut and ferment and cause bloat and when a baby calf bloats they will die if you cannot get their gut to pass the bloat and gas– it will shut down and they will die.  My neighbor told me this and she took animal nutrition at UC Davis and she was having the same problem.  I also found someone else in our community that gave up trying to raise calves since they all died just this way and we all used the same milk from the same store.  I now know that ALL milk replacer companies DO this.  They have two different QUALITIES of milk replacers.  The ALL MILK PROTEINS and the cheaper ones with SOY in them.  But when you are wanting to raise or save a calf’s life, you cannot afford to go cheap!  I never expected to discover this in my journey with my sick calves.  I can say this winter, I got good quality all milk proteins and my 6 calves so far are thriving  – happy and healthy and running and butting me wanting to eat, and hardly any runny poop.  My calf pen is such a pleasure now compared to the last 2 years  – like night and day.  Just minus ONE ingredient.

bovine first months

Some Bottle Feeding Guidelines:

  1.  Protein – the most important and expensive part of the milk replacer should be 20% or higher and should be All Milk Proteins that are Dried Whey, Dried Whey Protein Concentrate, Dried Whey Product, Skimmed Milk, Casein, Buttermilk or Dried Milk Proteins which means Casein.  In colder weather they need higher numbers– more protein for energy.
  2. Fat – look for 20% or higher fat and should be Animal Fat not from plants or vegetables in colder weather calves need higher fat levels for energy.
  3. Crude Fiber –  level should be .15% or lower. A sure sign of alternative or plant based or soy proteins in your milk replacer is a higher crude fiber level above .15%.  Although some of the soy proteins are altered to take some of the fiber out of them and keep a higher level of proteins they can still be in the milk replacer and NOT raise the crude fiber level.  Soy Protein Concentrate and Soy Protein Isolate are two of those that keep a high protein level without the fiber but they are denatured with heat and chemical or acid washes and this unfortunately makes them even harder to digest then the plain old SOY flour which is the cheapest and poorest quality and is in the marginal category meaning NOT to be fed to small or young calves.
  4. Alternative or SOY or plant based proteins to avoid are –  SOY FLOUR, SOY PROTEIN ISOLATE, PROTEIN MODIFIED SOY FLOUR,  SOY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE. Also avoid Animal Plasma, Wheat Gluten or Isolate, Glycine Max which is the scientific name for soybean and can be used to disguise soy in milk replacers.
  5. Calf Milk replacers – designed to keep a calf alive and if you want them to thrive, you must feed 1.5 to 2 x’s the amount listed as a serving which will bring up your fat and protein levels.  Also feeding 2 times is fine, but 3 times a day is more like their natural feeding routines.  I have upped my powder in my milk replacer in the bottles to 2 x’s and did it slowly and they are more satisfied and look great and I have some kibble or calf starter and water out for them.  I am only feeding twice a day which works out best for my daily schedule.  All are doing great.  Cow’s milk is 27% protein and higher than that in fat so even baby goats milk replacer is great for calves just so expensive at 25% protein and 28% fat it is more like cow’s milk.  Also you can feed multi species milk replacers as long as NONE of these contain SOY.

Kody Nitro

Calves 010




Why neonatal ruminants cannot digest SOY anything–More Resources:

  Soy contains some of the most powerful bio-chemicals and nutrient blockers called ANF’s  – Anti Nutritional Factors. ( ) [Benefits and Dangers of Soy Products] is a wonderful article that sheds a lot of light on the ANFs.  They stop the body from absorbing nutrients from the SOY or anything else consumed with the soy, so even with the all milk proteins paired with the soy in my calf milk replacer, that is why the calves died from malnutrition and organ failure and were anemic.  All the other nutrients were void.  It also causes gut damage and damages the Villi in the gut wall and the soy ferments in the gut and causes bloat because it cannot be absorbed in the lower intestine and bowel, which causes diarrhea and colic symptoms.  The calf will lose weight and die from other GI related complications. 


esophogeal grooveIn the Merck Veterinary Manual ( ) search: [ Diarrhea in Neonatal Ruminants ], there are many causes of diarrhea and they are all ones you need to consider with the help of your vet, but listed after all these is OTHER CAUSES: Inappropriately formulated milk replacers, milk replacers with poor quality, heat denatured proteins or with excessive amounts of soybean or carbohydrates of NON-MILK origins have a higher risk of producing diarrhea.  Such carbohydrates are NOT absorbed in the small intestine and cause colonic fermentation.  They appear to have an allergic reaction to soy proteins that results in villous atrophy and diarrhea that is malabsorptive.  Calves are initially bright and alert and have good appetites, eventually however, they become weak and emaciated if the diet is not corrected from poor-quality diets or insufficient nutritional intake. : Milk replacers come in a variety of proteins and fat concentrations.  The type and QUALITY of the ingredients also vary greatly. In recent years the demand for skimmed milk for human consumption has increased significantly so whey protein concentrate is replacing a major portion or the protein previously supplied by skimmed milk.  Milk Proteins contain the highest quality protein and are more easily digested than other protein sources.  Soy proteins are the next most commonly used proteins in calf milk replacers.  Unprocessed soy proteins contain numerous anti-nutritional factors.  These ANF’s interfere with the normal enzyme function and can bind to specific sugars or glycol-proteins which results in decreased absorption or nutrients and damage to the gut wall.  Soy proteins have shown to produce marked allergic reaction in the gut which will result in damage to the microvilli that line the small intestine. In order to determine the quality of a milk replacer you need to become familiar with the ingredients and a guaranteed analysis on the milk replacer.

 BAMN or Bovine Alliance on Management & Nutrition [The Guide to Calf Milk Replacers or The Modern Guide to Calf Milk Replacers ] is a good one to see how things are spelled out and broken down on the bag or the tag or a guaranteed analysis about what needs to be in our milk replacer.  I know they say after 3 weeks a baby calf can have soy.  They can NOT I had all ages and scenarios and I suggest if you are having these problems consider your milk replacer and the ingredients and try one without SOY and see if your problems go away.  Like I said, even whole cow’s milk from the grocery store is better for a short fix to see if it is your milk replacer or you can feed raw goats milk to anything.  Also Multi species milk replacers without soy are good and also baby goat milk replacers are good with NO soy.  They are just very expensive.  When raising or feeding a baby calf the goal is health and working with their body to keep them alive since they are born with NO immune system and are very susceptible to disease and illness.  This is ONE time you cannot afford to go cheap.

cow digestive system This site has a lot of information for raising calves without the cow.  ON the left hand side of the web page are articles and well over 100 of them that are a wealth of information.  So you can click on all the notes and it will bring them up and then click on the ones you want to read. #23 is Soy Proteins in Milk Replacers.  Also #5 is about bacteria in the rumen, #19 does hay develop the rumen, #20 ingredients for the rumen development, #09 when is a calf ready to wean, #16 stress at weaning that was a good one learning how and why they stress…digestive.  A very good place to research some information.  All geared for the dairy, but we as ranchers and caring for these animals really need to get some of this knowledge since there seems to be a gap in knowledge between feed stores and ranchers and backyard people where calves are concerned.  Also the people ordering milk replacers at the feed stores probably do not know much about milk replacers and or that there are different qualities.  I never knew that milk replacers came in different qualities.  Why not make them all good since all calves digest the same and need the same good quality all milk proteins….period. They do not possess the enzymes till months later to digest soy or any other plant based alternative proteins.  I googled baby calf digestive system esophageal groove and found so much information on baby calf’s digestive system and learned why and how they digest.  Very informative stuff and also that they need to be bottle fed with head up(rather than down into a bucket, which can be a common method) so that the esophageal groove engages and the milk goes where it needs to go.

I was so moved by my horrible experience and was not in a million years looking for what we discovered and I am compelled to share cause I have been finding many others with the same mysterious illness.  I’m happy to know now they have a choice in buying the right milk replacer for their baby calves that we love and put so much personal sweat and tears into our time and effort is not wasted on poor product.  I hear all the time why did no one complain before??  Well, we finally had to find out what was killing my calves. We used the science to eliminate the obvious culprits–diseases in calves, and last changed the milk and found the soy flour in the ingredients and changed the diet and the last calf instantly got well.  How many others have thought their calves died from scours?  My local vet once he heard about the soy knew instantly you cannot feed soy to baby animals…he never would have thought to look in the ingredients of my milk replacer for something making them sick…neither would I.  We trust these companies and these brands so much that we never question what is in there.  I have learned so much and wish to pass this on and help change the way we all buy our milk replacers.  I am not out to get a company or looking for a lawsuit or money I just want to pass on the knowledge and in hopes that other will help educate the feed stores to change you community like I did mine and also pass this onto others whom it might help.  I have great satisfaction in knowing and hearing from others that I have helped in saving baby calves lives.  I hope you will also spread the word!


Maria Neilsen, El Dorado County Rancher in El Dorado CA

530-626-4671 or 



Thanks Gwen for sharing Maria’s insight!

Happy Trails!

What's on your mind?

  1. Good article. I might add that most generally the soy replacers are labled right in the instructions that they are not intended for calves less than three weeks in age. There is a good lesson there. Milk replacer companies like most other companies are about maximizing profits. They change their products any time a newer faster way can be found. Always read the label. The product you “have been using for years” likely was different each time you purchased it. An aside I was taught at college that the position you feed them in is a little pickier than shown. The picture of the little boy with the calf standing neck almost horizontal nose tipped up in the position he would nurse a cow is correct and engages the esophogeal groove. The picture of the adult feeding standing with the calf reaching up I was taught is incorrect. That was a hundred years ago though lol I will be doing some more research. Thank you

    • Read the label. I should have done that. I bought milk replacer and and fed out the calves. My husband looked at the label ingredients and saw there was a pesticide in it for flies. Ugh.

  2. Thank you do much, I have some nurse cows so use milk replacer only When I have two many calves. However, I will check labels and be fully conscious after this. Again,thank you.
    I wish I could print this story .