Calf rearing: 5 key areas that warrant your attention

Successful calf rearing and performance is fundamentally based around some key management practises.

Calf Specialist at Cargill Animal Nutrition, Bianca Theeruth has compiled a list of the top five areas that must be given due attention.

1. Calf housing

The environment in which calves are placed immediately following birth should be given considerable attention as only the right environment will contribute to thrive.

Here’s what needs to be considered:

  • Adequate space per calf
  • Dry, draught-free, well-ventilated area bedded regularly
  • Consistent internal environment to minimise stressful situations
  • Suitable design to accommodate changes in climate and environment
  • Labour efficient housing
  • Attention to temperature

While extra bedding will help calves nest into the straw and keep warm – consider calf jackets in very cold weather as 15 degrees is the lower critical temperature for a calf under three weeks of age.

Factors to consider when buying calf jackets:

  1. Breathable material allowing moisture on the calf’s coat to pass through.
  2. Machine washable and be washed after each use to reduce the risk of spreading diseases between calves.
  3. Straps and fasteners: plastic clips are preferred over velcro straps which require additional cleaning and maintenance due to clogging.


2. Feeding schedule and routine

A good feeding schedule and routine from birth to weaning will be fundamental to achieving targets for growth, health and economic performance.

Cargill Animal Nutrition’s philosophy is that calves need to be fed twice a day from birth to one week before weaning, where the volume and number of feeds can be reduced as part of the step down weaning process.

Calf milk replacers are typically fed at a concentration similar to that of cow’s whole milk, that being 12.5% Dry Matter (125g/kg DM).

However, it can be fed at concentrations ranging from 10-20% Dry Matter (100-200g/kg DM), depending on the rearing system and growth rate required.


Calf milk replacer for bucket, bottle and teat feeding is always made up to a litre with 125g of powder being added to 875ml of water giving a one litre ready to feed mixed milk with a Dry Matter concentration of 12.5%.

And, if 125g of powder is added to one litre of water, it will produce 1.125 litres of ready to feed mixed milk with a Dry Matter concentration of 11.1%.

The amount of solids feed per day is key and it is advisable to know exactly how much you are feeding.

Calf growth rates should also be monitored regularly, while records to track performance and monitor disease presence should also be kept.

It is also advisable to review the feeding schedule and routine and adjust growth targets if necessary.

Provide ad-libitum access to good quality calf starter, straw and fresh water once calves are finished colostrum phase (usually day three) to kick start rumen development.

Fresh starter and water should also be provided on a daily basis as they work hand-in-hand to drive rumen development.

Cleanliness and consistency should be maintained at all times and regular observation and attention to detail will minimise stress and encourage strong, healthy, well grown calves.


3. Colostrum management

Animal Health Ireland guidelines are well documented because of their merit.

Some key points are to feed colostrum at body temperature (39°C) ensuring that previously frozen colostrum is allowed to thaw in a fridge overnight.

It is highly advisable to check the temperature with a thermometer and once warm use immediately.

Here’s some considerations when it comes to feeding colostrum:

  • Quality: IgG>50g/l and TBC (total bacterial count) < 100 000 cfu/ml (bacterial numbers in warm colostrum can double every 20 minutes).
  • Target: IgG in milk > 50g/l and IgG in blood = 15g/1 (>10 g/l).
  • Quantity: four-to-six litres within the first 24 hours following birth – feed two-to-three litres or 10% of body weight within two hours of birth.
  • Quickly: within six-to-eight hours following birth to ensure highest absorption of IgG – efficiency of antibody absorption declines rapidly from birth onwards.
  • Quietly: minimise stress to ensure efficient absorption of protective antibodies.
  • Hygiene: Contamination during collection, transfer or feeding.
  • Disease status of cows, udder cleanliness, operator cleanliness (hands), equipment (cluster and pipework), clean dump bucket and transfer to clean bucket with lid on it.

4. Hygiene

Hygiene is something that is part of housing, feeding, bedding and lends itself to every part of calf rearing and overall health.

However, in many cases the basics are overlooked.

Here’s the list of basics to cover off:

  • Dip navel with iodine after birth.
  • Implement hygiene procedures for buildings, feeding equipment and personnel.
  • Evaluate hygiene management of feeding equipment and housing management on a regular basis.
  • Observe calves on a regular basis for signs of ill health.

5. Choosing a Calf Milk Replacer

We are currently in a market where farmers are being faced with a considerable choice of calf milk replacers.

There is little doubt about the value of feeding a good quality milk replacer and what it can do in supporting growth performance and overall calf health which supports lifetime productivity.

However, it is important to select a milk replacer based on a few key facts.

• Select milk replacer to suit feeding system, calf type and growth goals.
• Ensure high nutrient digestibility.
• Have a consistent supply and availability of milk replacer for the number of calves.
• Ensure milk replacer is mixed correctly and always presented in a consistent manner to reduce stress and nutritional scours during the rearing period.
• Feed at correct level (concentration/volume) and temperature to meet growth targets.
• During cold weather consider increasing feed rate – for every 1°C drop in temperature below 15°C for calves less than three weeks old, maintenance energy requirement increases by 1%.

Bianca Theeruth is a calf specialist at Cargill Animal Nutrition where much of her time is spent in both Ireland and the UK promoting good calf rearing techniques and practises.

Cargill Animal Nutrition developed the ProviMilk Calf Milk Replacer Range and you can Find out more here