What should I look for in a calf ration?

With calving due to commence on many farms in the coming days and weeks, the importance of correctly feeding the new-born calf cannot be underestimated.

Colostrum is extremely important in the early hours of life, while a good-quality milk replacer– fed at the correct rate – is vital when it comes to giving the calf the best start.

Heifers will be the backbone of the herd in the future, while bull calves will most likely go into a beef system, so a good calf ration is essential.

Important qualities of a calf starter: Palatable; high quality; competitively priced.

When should you start feeding concentrates to calves? Teagasc suggests that calves should have access to clean, palatable starter concentrates from three days-of-age.

From three weeks-of-age, calves will begin to eat considerable amounts of starter concentrates.

Coarse ration vs. pellets – which is better for calf performance?

According to Teagasc, young calves will accept a coarse ration more readily than pellets. A course ration encourages more chewing and saliva secretion.

In addition, calves fed coarse starter mix eat more and have been shown to have higher weight gains than those fed pellets. The coarseness also benefits growth of the muscle layers in the rumen wall.

animal feed BASF seaweed

What ingredients do coarse rations usually contain?

Most coarse rations contain ingredients such as flaked maize; rolled barley; peas; processed soya; beet pulp; linseed flakes; molasses; and a pelleted protein balancer.

Each ingredient must be palatable in its own right to prevent the calf from selecting out individual components of the ration.

What allocation of concentrates is recommended?

When it comes to stimulating calf starter consumption in young calves, always remember “less is more”.

At first, a small handful of concentrate should be offered after milk is fed. The ration should be placed in front of the calves in shallow troughs/buckets to encourage the calf to ‘nose around’ in it. By two weeks, the allocation should be increased to two handfuls.

The idea is to encourage consumption while not overwhelming the calves or wasting feed. The ration offered should be changed daily, keeping it fresh and encouraging the calf to eat.

Use a measure for meal dispensing as it helps to prevent overfeeding which can lead to digestive upsets and scouring. Concentrate should be increased gradually, with calves consuming at least 1kg of concentrate daily by weaning.

It is vital to check that the calves’ dung does not loosen too much as the ration allocation is increased.

supports bvd

Calf starter nutrient specification

A ration that meets the calf’s nutrient specifications, as well as their preference form, texture, taste and smell, will encourage early intake.

To promote growth and maintain health, calf rations must contain: Energy for growth and functions like breathing, walking and grazing. Protein for all basic metabolic processes and growth, fibre for rumen function and to ensure cud chewing.

Ration ingredients %: 

  • Protein content: 18%;
  • Oil content: 3.5-4%;
  • Fibre: 8-10%;
  • Energy: +0.95 UFL;
  • Ash content: 6%.

Vitamins for metabolic processes, bone formation and disease resistance, minerals for carbohydrate metabolism, cartilage and muscle function. Typical nutrient requirement for a calf starter for vitamins and minerals.


  • Calcium – 0.7%;
  • Phosphorus – 0.45%;
  • Magnesium – 0.10%;
  • Sodium – 0.15%;
  • Potassium – 0.65%;
  • Chlorine – 0.20%;
  • Sulphur – 0.20%;
  • Iron – 50mg/kg;
  • Zinc – 40mg/kg;
  • Manganese – 40mg/kg;
  • Copper – 10mg/kg;
  • Iodine – 0.25mg/kg;
  • Coblat – 0.10mg/kg;
  • selenium – 0.30mg/kg.


  • Vitamin A – 4,000 IU/kg;
  • Vitamin D – 600 IU/kg;
  • Vitamin E – 25 IU/kg.