In recent years, the national suckler herd has been in decline. This is mainly due to rising costs of maintaining suckler cows throughout the year.

Also there have been diminishing returns from beef markets and weanling sales in livestock marts. At the same time, the last few years have seen a large increase in the national dairy herd.

This has been due to the abolition of milk quotas, resulting in many farmers increasing dairy cow numbers, pushing up milk production and output.

The increase in cow numbers has resulted in more beef calves being available from the dairy sector.

Calf rearing tips

Buying dairy-bred calves to rear is an enterprise that many beef farmers are now either doing or considering.

Purchasing dairy-bred calves

Consider the following; purchase calves from a known source, where the health and vaccination status of the cows and the Eurostar Terminal Index of the stock bull or AI Bull is known to you.

Do not buy from too many sources, as doing this will increase the risk of importing disease into your herd.

Avoid mixing calves of different ages. On arrival to your farm, ensure these young animals are housed in a clean, dry, well-ventilated, well-bedded, draught-free calf shed with fresh, clean water available.

Don’t skimp on straw for these young animals. Where you are buying in a large number of calves annually, you should have a health protocol drawn up with your vet so that you know your vaccination and dosing regime.


Management and feeding of dairy-bred calves

The first few weeks of feeding has a huge impact on the performance of these calves for the rest of the year.

Feeding a high-quality milk replacer, feeding enough of it, getting them onto solid feed early and keeping a high health status in the calf-rearing shed are all essential.

The traditional two litres of milk replacer, fed twice a day, is no longer considered adequate.

Most calves should be getting at least six litres of milk replacer per day, where the concentration is 125g per litre of water.

Calves are fed milk using blue feeders

From three weeks of age, calves can be fed once per day; make sure they are fed at the same time every day and ideally in the morning.

Nipple feeding from an automatic feeder is preferable to feeding from a bucket or trough.

The milk replacer should be at least 25% crude protein (on a Dry Matter basis). Remember you generally get what you pay for.

Ration choices

Calves fed coarse starter mix eat more and have higher weight gains than calves fed pelleted calf starters.

Keep the ration fresh by only feeding what they will eat in a day.

Ensure that any coarse ration fed has high-quality ingredients, is fresh smelling and is free of dust.

Calves that have free access to water eat more starter ration and have better ruminal development.

Make sure there is always clean water available. While calves need some source of long roughage, such as straw, do not over-feed it to them as it will reduce their ration intake and they can develop ‘hay bellies’.

dairy calves

Managing scour

If calves start to scour, isolate them from other calves to avoid cross infection, get electrolytes into them and do not stop feeding them milk replacer.

Consult your vet on any disease outbreak; a scour sample may need to be taken to verify the cause of the scour outbreak.

Calves should not be weaned until they are eating at least 1kg of calf ration for three consecutive days.

Wean them gradually off milk replacer over a seven-to-10 day period. Wean the strongest, heaviest first and wean them in batches.

At grass

When the weather improves, the weaned calves on a coarse ration can be released outdoors to high-quality leafy grass. Continue to feed 1kg of coarse calf ration per head per day.

By Anthony O’Connor, Teagasc Adviser, Galway/Clare Regional Unit