The Agriland Spring Calf Series is in association with Teagasc DairyBeef 500.

By Alan Dillon, DairyBeef 500 programme coordinator

The feeding of milk replacer to dairy-bred calves is a task that requires great attention to detail.

Many mistakes can be made in this process with incorrect water temperature, incorrect concentration levels and incorrectly mixed milk leading to gastrointestinal issues with young calves, such as bloat or nutritional scour.

The main objective of the early-rearing period is to double calf birth weight by eight weeks (e.g. 40kg to 80kg in 56 days).

This means the calf needs to achieve a live weight of 100kg by 12 weeks-of-age and record a growth rate of 700-800g/day.

Calves must be transitioned from a pre-ruminant to a ruminant diet without any setbacks.

Main points to consider

Mixing milk correctly

Farmers must maintain a high level of hygiene throughout the mixing and feeding programme.  Use scales to measure the powder correctly and to ensure consistency.

Mix milk replacer using water below 40°C – boiling water damages the milk proteins.

Reconstitute by adding the total amount of powder required to half the measured volume of water. Mix thoroughly (use a mixer or whisk) and then add the balance of warm water to make up the correct volume.

Aim to feed calves at body temperature (37-39°C).

Milk replacer specifications

When purchasing milk replacer, farmers should pay attention to the main ingredients and the specifications.

Milk made with skim milk or whey is perfectly adequate. Price shouldn’t be the only factor to consider when purchasing milk replacer and each farmer should have a conversation with their merchant about the specifications before agreeing a price.

The spec should include the following:

  • Protein content >20%;
  • Oil content 18-20%;
  • Ash content <8%;
  • Fibre content <0.15%.

The powder should contain milk derived proteins (skim milk powder or whey protein concentrate).

Farmers should ensure the powder is easily dissolved without leaving residuals on feeding equipment.

Milk replacer feeding rates and methods

The amount of milk fed and concentrate intake determines calf growth rate in the period up to 12 weeks, with the target being to get the calf to grow from 40-45kg at birth to about 100kg.

This can be achieved with inputs of about 25kg of milk replacer and 120kg of concentrates.

For calf-to-beef systems, where calves are purchased at two-weeks-old, each calf should receive at least 13-15% of its birth weight in a good quality milk replacer – typically 6L/day for a Friesian calf. until the calf is 35-days-old.

The quantity of milk replacer fed will be reduced from here on until weaning.

To make 1L of mixed milk at 12.5% solids, mix 125g of milk powder to 875ml of water. Mixing rates may vary between products; always adhere to the manufacturer’s instructions. Milk replacer should be considered as a feed; clean, fresh water should be available at all times.

Allow calves 2-3 hours rest after arrival before feeding a good rehydration electrolyte as a first feed.

Concentrate feeding

Concentrate supplementation is the single most important factor for rumen development. A high-quality, palatable starter concentrate should be available to calves freely, as soon as they arrive on farm, and offered fresh daily.

Calf concentrate should contain 17-18% crude protein and have an energy value of at least 12MJ/kg (greater than 0.95UFV/kg).

Finely ground, dusty feeds should be avoided. Calves fed coarse starter mix initially eat more and have higher weight gains than calves fed pelleted starters.

Avoid feeding concentrates unsuitable for calves such as low protein, high energy finisher concentrates.


Weaning decisions should be made based on concentrate intake and weight, not age. Calf weaning age can vary from six to 10 weeks depending on the feeding strategy.

Calves should be consuming 1kg of calf starter per day for three consecutive days prior to ceasing liquid feed.

To stimulate concentrate intake, the general advice is to reduce liquid feed consumption by 50% per day, one week prior to desired weaning date.

Monitoring starter intake allows adjustment/delay of weaning dates for any calves not meeting growth targets/eating consistently well. Stressors, such as dehorning/vaccination, should be avoided during the weaning period.


The first 8-10 weeks of a calf’s life will have a big influence on how it performs at later stages of life.

A calf that is not fed its nutritional requirements and allowed to transition into a full ruminant without major setbacks can reduce the weight of the animal at all the major stages of its life and result in a higher finishing cost on farm.

While inputs have seen dramatic rises especially in the form of milk replacer and calf ration, it is money well spent and should see a reduced level of cost at the other end when the animal is housed for slaughter.