Top 10 steps every farmer needs to follow when feeding calves

The calf-rearing period on any farm can be stressful but enjoyable, provided things are running smoothly.

We know that 50% of calf mortality within the first year occurs within the first six weeks. A well-fed calf is better equipped to fight off the challenges that come with an immature immune system.

Therefore, good calf nutrition cannot be underestimated and is a precursor to calf health. A healthy calf will be a productive calf, coupled of course with good animal husbandry and an animal health plan tailored to the farm.

Better performance

Focusing on these areas will result in less sickness, reduced antibiotic use and better performance.

The following 10 steps will assist your calves in reaching their true growth potential.

1. Use the 1,2,3 rule when feeding colostrum

Farmers are advised to use the 1,2,3 rule when feeding colostrum to the new-born calves. The rule is simple to remember and has been proven to be effective.

Using the 1,2,3 rule:

  1. Use the first milk (colostrum) from the cow;
  2. Feed the calf colostrum within the first two hours of birth;
  3. Calves must be offered at least 3L of good quality colostrum.

Correct colostrum management is important as calves are born without adequate antibodies to fight off infection.

New-born calves acquire 90% of their immunity (passive) to pathogens and disease from the first 24 hours of feeding; therefore, colostrum management should be a key priority at farm level.

2. Measure colostrum quality

It is also important to measure the quality of colostrum and this can be done using a Brix refractometer.

High-quality colostrum which has a reading of 22% or above can be used or stored. Colostrum quality decreases rapidly after each subsequent milking.

3. Feed a quality milk replacer

Milk replacer is a consistent feed which contains vitamins and trace elements designed for calf growth and specific nutritional needs.

Avoid feeding cheap milk replacers as they are generally lower in milk protein ingredients which may not be suitable for very young calves.

Milk replacers should contain approximately 20-26% protein and farmers should feed a quality milk replacer such as ProCalf or Pro Heifer.

Trial work has shown that using a 26% protein milk replacers such as Pro Heifer helps calves achieve target weaning weights earlier.

4. Ensure plenty of water is available to calves

Water is essential for calves as they are born without a functioning rumen which is developed by the fermentation of grain and water.

Calves offered free-choice water consume more meal and begin to grow at a faster rate. Weaned calves require 10-15L per day; this can increase up to 25L on hot days.

Calves on grass. Photo O'Gorman Photography

5. Managing weaning

When feeding milk replacer, consider the age of the calf you are feeding. Calves less than four weeks-of-age cannot digest the same ingredients as older animals.

When weaning calves, gradually reduce the volume fed over seven-to-10 days. This will lead to an increased concentrate intake and avoid a slump in growth rate after weaning.

Aim for 0.7-0.8kg weight gain per day (not less than 0.55 at any period). It is also recommended to increase the level of milk by 1-2% in cold weather.


6. Evaluate and monitor dehydration

Sick calves may lose up to 10% of their body weight in a single day when they are scouring and in severe cases may result in death. A clear test for dehydration is the skin tenting check.

To tent the skin, firmly pinch the loose folds of the skin on the neck of the calf and check to see how long the skin remains tented.

If the skin flattens in less than two seconds, this indicates normal hydration. If the skin takes two-to-six seconds to flatten, the calf is about 8% dehydrated. Over six seconds would indicate severe dehydration of over 10%.

7. Minimise the risk of calf scour

The greatest cause of calf death in Ireland is scour and pneumonia.

Adopt basic management protocols to both reduce exposure to the causative organism and increase the calf’s immunity.


8. Be prepared for calf scour

Early detection and action is essential for control. Remember growth setbacks due to illness will not be recovered.

Depending on the severity of the scour treatment, it may be decided to: isolate affected calves (to reduce spread of disease); give an oral electrolyte such as Rehydion Gel; and continue to feed the calf milk or milk replacer for energy.

Be proactive in managing coccidiosis, a parasitic disease which damages the health and performance of calves. It is a disease of the intestinal tract occurring most frequently in calves from one to six months and is one of the most common causes of scour in Ireland.

To prevent financial losses, the farmer must diagnose the disease early and implement control measures that limit the spread of the organism. If there is a history of coccidiosis on the farm prevention is better than cure. A product such as CoxxKure can be used for both prevention and treatment.

9. Use clean feeding utensils

Feed buckets should be separated from water buckets to prevent grain from being dribbled into the water and vice versa.

Ensure feeding teats are not worn and clean all equipment. Calibrate automatic feeders regularly.


10. Avoid feeding waste milk

For calves retained for breeding, avoid feeding waste milk as this can pose the risk of carrying disease such as Johne’s and can cause the development of antibiotic resistance.

More information

ProCalf and Pro Heifer milk replacers are supplied by Interchem (Ireland) Ltd. The veterinary approved range of milk replacers offer excellent results in nutrition, growth rates, digestibility, taste and ease of mixing.

For more advice on feeding calves, simply click here