The period over the next few weeks is when major preparations happen for the busy spring season when most calf-to-beef units prepare for the arrival of their calves from the dairy herd.

For the first three weeks on the new farm, lower weight calves have a higher risk of illness.

A calf’s ‘weight for age’ or its live weight, divided by its age in days, has a significant positive correlation to both lifetime daily live weight gain and carcass weight.

Before deciding where to source calves, farmers should consider the following points:

  • The animal health and feeding management on the farm of origin, especially the provision of adequate high-quality colostrum shortly after birth;
  • Distance and mode of transport to the rearing farm;
  • Whether the calf was purchased directly from the farm or through an agent;
  • The amount/level of mixing of stock from different farms;
  • Calves purchased directly from a dairy farm are often healthier than those purchased through marts. They will have had reduced exposure to pathogens, less co-mingling, they are delivered directly and often they will have had better nutrition;
  • Preferably buy calves from farms which have control programmes in place against diseases such as calf scours, bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD), and infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR).

Once the farmer who is buying the calves has decided where they will be sourced, the calves should be visually inspected.

Most of the things to look out are based around common sense, but here’s a few points to keep in mind when selecting calves:

  • Calves must have received adequate colostrum;
  • The calves hooves should be firm and worn flat;
  • Ensure all calves have a dry, withered umbilical cord, not a pink/red, raw or fleshy umbilical cord;
  • The calf should be alert with a clean damp nose and bright eyes;
  • The calf should have supple skin and a shiny coat;
  • There should be no visible signs of disease, diarrhoea, discharge (mouth/ nose/eyes), deformity, disability, injury or blindness;
  • Calves must not be lame and must be able to bear weight on all four limbs.

The source of the calves greatly influences the disease risks on the rearing farm. Some sources provide calves with a higher risk of disease than others.

Calf housing

Before calves arrive on the farm, calf housing should be cleaned, disinfected and ready to go when the calves arrive. Calves should be kept dry and draught free.

Draughts are considered present if wind velocity exceeds 0.5m/s in any of the calf pens. Draughts hitting calves causes them to lose heat and energy. Energy loss will double when wind speed rises above 0.5m/s. A comfortable microclimate is essential in the first week of life with temperatures >20°C.

Air inlets should be above calf height level and the penning area should be laid out so that the currents of incoming air are not directed into the calf lying area.

It is also important to make sure there are no down draughts from the outlets.

Draughts are especially difficult to avoid in open-sided buildings where wind cannot be controlled. Farmers with buildings like these are advised to build temporary walls/shelters to avoid uncontrolled wind impacting young calves.


A calf spends 80% of its time lying down so the type and depth of bedding used is important.

Calves should not be lying directly on concrete as it tends to become wet and slippery and encourages the spread of bacteria throughout the house.

The quality of bedding material is crucial to reduce the amount of heat lost via conduction from the calf lying. Deep straw bedding is superior to other bedding material in its efficacy as an insulator.

It can provide a high ‘nesting score’ which has a preventive effect against calf respiratory disease in naturally ventilated sheds. Straw bedding should be at least 15cm deep and should remain dry at all times.

Wood shavings and bark chips can also be used to provide the calves with dry lying conditions. Calves require up to 20kg/head/week of straw bedding in order to maintain dry conditions on concrete floors.


The flooring/bedding needs to facilitate easy cleaning and removal of waste. Waste should not drain away from one pen through another as this can spread disease. Drainage on concrete floors can be improved by having a 1:20 slope towards a channel.

The channel should be located a minimum of 300mm inside the feed barrier. Channels should have a 1:60 slope and waste should be removed to an external, ventilated storage tank.

There should be shallow channels within the pens that are 25-30mm deep, 100-150mm wide and easily cleaned by brushing. These channels should not impede the mechanical cleaning of straw beds.

The shed should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected with a broad spectrum disinfectant before calves arrive. While in use, pens should be frequently disinfected to prevent the build-up of disease organisms.

Ideally, calves should be bedded every day and pens cleaned out weekly.

Feed space for calves

The correct feeder and drinking space must be provided to encourage feed and water intake and to discourage bullying. For bucket feeding, a calf requires 350mm of feed face each.

The table below outlines a recommended feeding regime for calves post-arrival on the farm.

DayTimeFeeding scheduleConcentrates
1PmProvide ad lib access to warm electrolyte solution and allow the calf to rest overnightN/A
2Am + Pm2L of milk replacer (38°C) 2L of electrolyte solution (38°C)N/A
3Am + Pm2L of milk replacer (38°C) 2L of electrolyte solution (38°C)Handful
4 Normal feeding methodAd-Lib

For automatic feeders, there should always be more than one teat per pen. This reduces the risk of a calf being without milk and then over feeding when a teat is fixed.

The number of calves per feeder varies. Meal troughs should be 450mm above the floor, 100mm deep and 250mm wide.

Arrival of calves

During transport, it is common for a calf to lose weight due to lack of food and water. This can lead to dehydration, loss of electrolytes and low blood sugar.

To help counteract this weight loss, 2L of electrolytes should be given after the calf has rested for two to three hours. This will help reduce dehydration and increase appetite or food interest.

Calves should be allowed settle into dry clean beds of deep straw. They should not be dehorned or stressed further in any way on arrival.


Calves should be allowed settle for 24 hours and then given any vaccinations required (RSV,Pi3, Pasteurella and IBR). Preventative treatments for coccidiosis should be administered orally also once calves are the recommended age.

Calves should be monitored regularly during the first week after arrival. It is likely that any respiratory issues will emerge in the week following transport.

Sick calves must stay hydrated and treated appropriately with antibiotics using veterinary advice to ensure no long lasting poor health effects.

Winter Beef series is in conjunction with Teagasc’s DairyBeef 500 Campaign.