Dairy beef: What should you do when calves land on your farm?

The Irish dairy-beef industry is ever growing and is a very important cog in the beef production chain. Due to the growth in the national dairy cow population – since the unshackling of the milk quotas – there has been a proportional increase in the number of dairy calves available for beef production.

The calf rearing period is the most crucial period for any calf-to-beef enterprise. The growth rate achieved during these first few months will influence the lifetime performance of the animal.

Therefore, optimising the calves’ nutrition and health are essential to ensure that the calf has the highest possible chance of achieving its full potential for growth and feed conversion efficiency.

Ideally, farmers should purchase calves from a known source. It is important that the farmer knows the health and vaccination status of the herd.

The initial costs – Teagasc says – of investing in these systems are relatively low. However, the cost of keeping these animals can quickly amass over the production cycle.

Before purchasing calves, it is advised that beef farmers estimate production costs and carcass value of the system they are aiming to finish these animals under. The following table outlines the target weights for the first 15 weeks of a calf’s life.

Source: Teagasc

In addition, Teagasc says, there are a number of areas where money should not be spared.


Calves should not be lying directly on concrete, as it tends to become wet and slippery and encourages the spread of bacteria throughout the house.

The quality of bedding material is crucial to reduce the amount of heat lost via conduction from lying calves. Deep straw bedding is superior to other bedding material. It can provide a high ‘nesting score’, which has a preventive effect against calf respiratory disease in naturally-ventilated sheds.

According to Teagasc, straw bedding should be at least 15cm deep and should remain dry at all times.


Vaccinations are very important for the health of the calf. Any farm – Teagasc says – that has begun a vaccination programme with their calves will never go back to taking the risk of not having one.

Pneumonia is the most common disease associated with housed calves. According to Teagasc, approximately 3% of calves born die from pneumonia in the first 12 weeks of life.  Calves can be vaccinated from two weeks of age. The vaccination programme is two shots, four weeks apart. A booster shot should be given before the next risk period.

It is also important to note that calves that have suffered from scour are more likely to develop pneumonia later in life.

Feeding milk replacer

The less milk replacer you feed, the lower the weight of the calves will be at housing next autumn.

Replacer is generally fed at 125g of powder to 875ml of water, which gives a solids content of 12.5% to the ‘mixed’ milk. However, this recommendation will vary between manufacturers and, given this, it’s important to adhere to the manufacturer’s instructions.

With this mixing rate in mind, a farmer feeding his/her calves 6/L per day – under a twice-a-day feeding system – needs to mix 5,250ml of water with 750g of powder.

Feeding crunch

According to Teagasc, crunch should be introduced from day one and fed ad-lib. This feed promotes the development of the calf’s rumen, so that it can be weaned off milk replacer at an early age.

The ration should be of a high quality and palatable. Once calves are consuming 1kg/day of crunch, they can be weaned off milk replacer. To promote growth and maintain health, calf rations must contain energy, protein, fibre, minerals and vitamins.