Give your calves the best possible start

Author: John Bass – Business Development Manager 

Getting your calves off to the best possible start will have a huge impact on its growth, health, and longevity within the herd. The ultimate goal of calf rearing is to set up a heifer to achieve target weights such as doubling her birth weight at the point of weaning, achieving 60% of her mature weight at breeding, and calving down at 24 months at 90% of her mature body weight. To help you achieve such targets, we have put together a number of essential calf rearing protocols to follow over the next few vital weeks.

Colostrum Management

A calf’s first feed is no doubt the most important feed of its life. Ensuring a calf receives an adequate intake of quality colostrum preferably from its own mother will provide crucial antibodies and immunity from illness and disease.

  • Follow the 3:2:1 rule (3 litres, 2 hours, 1st milking). Colostrum deteriorates significantly within 4-6 hours after calving. Feed enough clean colostrum quickly to ensure that the calves receive high-quality colostrum. Intervene with a bottle feed if it has not suckled.
  • Keep colostrum clean; wash and sterilise all collecting buckets, dump buckets, and dump lines as you would wash your milking machine.
  • If storing colostrum in the fridge, do so at 4 degrees and for no longer than two days, as the absorption of antibodies will deteriorate thereafter.
  • Colostrum should be frozen in small packs to ease defrosting. To avoid damage to antibodies, ensure to defrost slowly on a low heat below 50 degrees celsius.

Milk replacer vs whole milk

Following on from the colostrum, the calf then moves onto transition milk. From day 2-3, it is advantageous to feed milk replacer over whole milk to help minimise disease spread and anti-bacterial resistance. The following guidelines should be followed:

  • Calves require approximately 13% of their body weight in feed intake in week one of life. This should be split between 2-4 feeds per day. In week two, this requirement rises to 15% of body weight equating to about 6L per day for a 40kg calf.
  • Like with whole milk, milk replacers need to be mixed and fed at the correct temperature (37-39 degrees Celsius) and correct concentration to ensure adequate nutrient intake.
  • Mix 125 grams to 850ml of water which provides a daily gain of roughly 700 grams (6L milk/day). Increase to meet demand if necessary.
  • Calves at 2-3 weeks of age have the potential to achieve 750-950 grams of live weight gain per day, with a minimum of 500 grams.
  • Feed conversion efficiency is almost at 1:1, so the quality of milk fed must be high to ensure the daily intake is providing enough nutrition to meet demand.
  • Milk powders vary and those based on either skim or whey are more favourable than those based on vegetable proteins – Dairy proteins are more easily absorbed and available to the calf compared to plant-based proteins.
  • Aim for powders with a minimum of 23% protein and 17% fat and below 0.1% fibre.
  • Buckets and feeders should be rinsed daily and sterilised 2-3 times a week.


  • Introduce a high-quality calf starter ration or nut from days 2-3.
  • Make sure it is high in cereal grains and highly palatable with no dust.
  • Intakes will be small, so keep quantities low and fresh.
  • Early intake of cereal-based feed will rapidly increase early rumen development and the growth of papillae on the rumen wall. As a result, this will increase nutrient uptake capacity of the calf throughout its life.
  • Failing to feed grain at an early stage will have drawbacks later in life. Aim to have calves eating 1kg at weaning.


  • A fresh straw bed is important for calf welfare. It will also encourage straw intake which will aid digestive development.
  • Ensure that calves have adequate feeding and resting space and that pens are well-drained and free from any breezes or wind.
  • Regular cleaning and liming are a must to avoid pathogens and scours.
  • Ensure there is constant fresh clean drinking water provided for calves and that feeders and drinkers are at an accessible height.

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