Top management practices for successful calf rearing

The first 90 days of a calf’s life are important for future performance and within this period calves should reach 15% of their mature body weight. Calves should also double their birth weight in the first 60 days of life.

According to Cargill Animal Nutrition calf and heifer specialist, Bianca Theeruth, ensuring that your calves are warm, well-fed and comfortable will play a vital role in keeping them on target.

Take a look at Bianca’s top tips for calf rearing in the video (below).

Colostrum management

Colostrum is the most valuable nutrient for the newborn calf as it contains high energy levels, growth promoters, vitamins and immunoglobulin, which are vital for protection against disease.

When it comes to feeding colostrum, it is critical to consider the following:

  • Quality: To test for colostrum quality, a Brix refractometer can be used. Colostrum quality target must be greater than 50g/ml of immunoglobin content;
  • Quantity: Feed 4-6L of colostrum within the first 24 hours following birth – feed 2-4L or 10% of body weight within two hours of birth;
  • Quickly: Feed colostrum as soon after birth as possible or within the first six hours of life to ensure the highest absorption of immunoglobin G (IgG) – efficiency of antibody absorption declines rapidly from birth onwards;
  • Quietly: Stress must be minimised when feeding colostrum to ensure efficient absorption of protective antibodies;
  • Hygiene: Contamination must be avoided during collection, transfer or feeding.

Calf housing

The environment in which calves are placed immediately following birth should be given considerable attention. The following can be used as a guideline for calf housing:

  • Adequate space per calf;
  • Dry, draught-free, well-ventilated area bedded regularly;
  • Wet area for fresh, clean water and starter feed;
  • Consistent internal environment to minimise stressful situations;
  • Suitable design to accommodate changes in climate and environment;
  • Attention to temperature.

Consider calf jackets in very cold weather – 15º is the lower critical temperature for a calf under three weeks-of-age.

Feeding schedule and routine

Calves must be fed twice a day (TAD) 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.

According to Bianca Theeruth: “Once calves have finished the colostrum phase [usually day three], it is essential to provide ad-libitum access to a good-quality calf starter, straw and fresh water to kickstart rumen development.

“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 feeding routine and adjust growth targets if necessary,” she said.


Good hygiene is central to calf rearing and overall health and should be applied to all areas including housing, feeding and bedding.

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

Choosing and feeding a calf milk replacer

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.

In order to choose the right calf milk replacer which will support successful calf growth and development cost-effectively, Bianca Theeruth recommends the following:

  • Select a calf milk replacer to suit your individual feeding system, calf type and growth goals. Exactly which powder is best for your calves – skim or whey – will come down to your individual objectives;
  • Don’t take the calf milk replacer label at face value as it won’t tell you everything you need to know. Further investigate what is in the calf milk replacer and its feed value;
  • Ensure high nutrient digestibility;
  • Have a consistent supply and availability of calf milk replacer for the number of calves;
  • Ensure the calf milk replacer is mixed correctly and always presented in a consistent manner to reduce stress and nutritional scours during the rearing period;
  • Feed at the correct level (concentration/volume) and temperature to meet growth targets;
  • During cold weather, consider increasing feed rate – for every 1° drop in temperature below 15° for calves less than three weeks old, maintenance energy requirement increases by 1%.

For further calf rearing advice or to find out more about the ProviMilk® Calf Milk Replacer Range, simply click here