The true costs and time needed to rear calves

In the absence of milk quotas more and more farmers will be asking themselves two key questions this spring:

  1. How much time does calf rearing take
  2. How much does it cost to rear a calf

The economics of milk replacer this year are close to whole milk owing to the low milk price.

However, on farms where Johnes is an issue or on newly set up dairy units were herd health status is unknown, many farmers will choose to use milk replacer to reduce/help eliminate the risk of passing Johnes virus or other animal health issues onto new born calves.

The time

Many researchers have been looking at the time factor and this can range from 30mins – 4 hours/day for 50 calves depending on the system.

Often farmers believe that the 1hr figure is appropriate to their farm but as the job is usually split in two the actual figure is more likely to be much higher.

Feeding milk once a day can allow farmers more time to look after their calves and as well making the day more flexible. It can also help increase dry feed consumption and growth rates before and after weaning.

The cost

With no quota, the true cost of rearing calves this year has risen, and as you can see from Table 1, it can be as high as €130 for ad-lib feeding, but even restricted feeding is €70/calf in lost milk sales.

Ad-lib feeding takes less time to rear calves but costs more while twice-a-day (TAD) restricted feeding costs less but takes more time.

Table 1


“That’s why more and more farmers are changing to Shine Once-a-day,” according to Bonanza’s Tom Warren.

In Table 2 he outline the cost of rearing calves using Shine Once-a-day with milk or water.

Warren highlights that weaning earlier can reduce the number of calves on milk by 10-20% saving more milk and time.

Table 2:

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Shine Once-a-day

Shine Once-a-day contains buttermilk and skim milk powder so the milk will form a firm curd in the calf’s stomach and takes over 14 hours to be digested.

For beef farmers, Shine Once-a-day is the cheapest and most effective way to rear bought in calves. This is because calves eat more dry feed and their rumen develops faster allowing weaning to occur a week or two earlier saving both labour and milk replacer used.

Using Shine Once-a-day will save at least 4kg of calf milk replacer worth €8/calf.

Anecdotally, farmers also report that the incidence of scour is less with Once-a-day feeding and calves are content providing they have ad-lib access to dry feed, straw and water.

Calf rearing tips from Bonanza

Are your calves getting enough colostrum?

Colostrum management for newborn calves remains a problem on many farms.

The modern dairy cow doesn’t share the same level of maternal instinct as her predecessor. She may produce a greater volume of colostrum but it is more dilute.

Colostrum quality declines at a rate of 4% an hour which may not seem high but if she is not milked immediately her colostrum will be on average 25% weaker when she gets into the parlour than when her calf was born.

The calf will only absorb 50% of what it was capable of at two hours old. The secret, therefore is getting colostrum in quickly, within two hours of birth, and giving a minimum of three litres, preferably four, in that period.

If a stomach tube is used a bag will only hold between two and two-and-a-half litres so it will have to be partially refilled.

It is worth feeding colostrum after 24 hours, especially if calves are vaccinated for scour, as they will get the benefit of antibodies in the small intestine.

Farm-stored colostrum can have a very high Total Bacterial Count (TBC) so care should be taken when storing it. Johnes disease is also a consideration.

It is possible to rear calves that have not received enough colostrum but it is best to rear them away from the main, healthy group of calves.

This will reduce potential disease levels, prevent these calves from being a source of new infection and reduce work and cost.


Wet straw is one of the worst environments for rearing calves.

A young calf spends 19 hours a day lying down and if the bedding is damp, to the extent where you can hear water squelching underfoot, the calf is in trouble.

Trapped air around straw keeps a calf warm by insulating its body thereby preventing heat loss. If the bedding is damp the moisture uses the heat from the calf’s body to evaporate into the atmosphere, which means the calf has to use energy to keep warm.

Disease-causing organisms thrive in this situation because they prefer damp air. Also, if the drainage is incorrect in housing, the only escape route for moisture is by evaporation, making the house and the calf cold. In this circumstance, the calf will need to use energy to keep warm, energy that it could use to fight disease. Disease is at higher levels because the air is cool and damp so the calf loses and the bugs win.

A four-week old calf could be excreting 6-8 litres of liquid a day and if there are 10 calves in a pen 80 litres of liquid need to be removed each day.

The only way of achieving this is by getting the fall in the floor right, ensuring calves are fed at the lowest point and can lie at the highest and warmest part of the housing.

A minimum fall of 1:20 is required so for a 4-metre pen a difference of 20cm from the back to the front of the pen is needed. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that a good floor can save a fortune in terms of time and additional calf weight gain in addition to lower mortality and vet bills.

Why it's necessary to give water to a calf?

A young calf is normally fed 4-6 litres of milk or milk replacer containing 3-5 litres of water.

Is it therefore necessary to offer additional water?

The answer is yes.

While water contained in the milk goes into the true stomach or abomasum it cannot be used for the digestion of dry feed or roughage.

Cereal grains, soya bean meal, straw and other feeds are all dried to prevent microbial spoilage. When a calf eats these they move into the rumen, the equivalent of a fermentation vat, and can only be broken down by bacterial activity.

Excluding water from a young calf’s diet reduces dry feed intakes by 60%, reduces growth by over 25% and increases the cost of rearing by 35%.

A calf will require 3-6 litres of water per kg of dry feed consumption, depending on the ambient temperature.

As the cost of water is essentially only the time it takes to supply it to the calf there are few more important factors that this for improving calf performance and liveweight gains.

Value of a calf sick bay

What is the first thing we do when we see a sick calf, well normally the calf is treated. But in most cases the calf is left among his currently healthy companions.

We know the calf is sick because if it has pneumonia we can see that it is lethargic with dropped ears, possibly runny nose and is most likely coughing. With

With scour we notice the calf’s dung. Watery dung splashing everywhere or a coughing calf are how a disease spreads so it is the offending bug that is making the calf do it for its own purpose and that is to spread to another calf before its current host defeats it or dies.

So leaving the sick calf with its mates does them no favours but helps the disease-causing bugs to expand to prosper. A shared teat full of saliva is another source of infection

If new young calves are introduced to the calf rearing area at the same time the disease will get a greater hold.

To break the chain we need to remove a sick calf regardless of how mild the disease is. This is best achieved by having a few individual pens or a few calf hutches for calves that are sick and those also considered disease risks. The latter include calves that may not have received enough colostrum, heifer’s calves or premature or weak calves. It is best to place these calves

The latter include calves that may not have received enough colostrum, heifer’s calves or premature or weak calves. It is best to place these calves down wind of the rest of the calves and to feed last so as not to carry the disease back to the main group

By implementing this policy all calves will benefit from a cleaner environment so more of their nutrients can be used for growth and development. They will eat more, again improving performance and the farm workload will decline as it is easier to remove 1 calf every few weeks than treating 1-2 calves every day.

In association with Bonanza Calf Nutrition