January 25, 2009

Cattle farm husbandry – calf rearing, feeds and systems

Cattle, farming, husbandry, calf, rearing, feeds available, which rearing system to use, using nurse cows

By Dr Clive Dalton

Rearing calves. Which system will you choose - and what will the results look like?
They should look as good as these!

Feeds available
Surplus colostrum
  • This is available from dairy farmers and has higher nutrient content than milk.
  • But beware – it may be something very different when you get there and contain washings from the milking machine plus detergents, antibiotics, and a lot of water that mysteriously got into the milk. So make sure your supplier is trustworthy and you are getting the genuine product.
  • A “colostrumeter” is on the market which works like a hygrometer so you can see if the colostrum is of good quality before you buy it or feed it to a calf.
  • It may vary in supply, and may be expensive because of competing demand. Try to get it at 10cents/litre but you may have to pay up to 15cents/litre.
  • Some dairy companies are now processing colostrum for export which has put up prices for calf rearing.
  • Add 1litre of natural yoghurt to start each new batch to help it to keep longer.

Surplus whole milk
  • You can buy this from dairy farmers too but again beware! Find out why the milk has not gone to the factory. Only buy it from reputable sources.
  • The main concern is that it may be contaminated with antibiotics that the dairy company will not accept – and it’s most commonly available for pickup from Sunday night and Monday morning milkings. That says a lot for some dairy farmers’ quality management systems!
  • Feeding this antibiotic milk to calves is now considered bad practice and may contribute to antibiotic resistance in the animal later in life.
  • When changing from surplus colostrum to whole milk, do it gradually to avoid digestive upsets.
  • It’s a good idea to mix colostrum with milk for older calves.
  • Feed warm milk to younger calves, but the older ones will accept cold milk as long as you are consistent.

Milk powders

The most important part of the bag is the back! The feeding values and instructions are on there.
  • There are many types are on the market, e.g. whole milk powder, skim milk powder, butter-milk powder and whey powder.
  • Buy a recognised brand from a reputable supplier. “Cheap” calf milk powders should be viewed with great suspicion.
  • These products vary widely in nutrient content so read the label and what is says about nutrient content to make sure you know what the calves are getting.
  • Follow the maker’s instructions to the letter when feeding powders.
  • Some calf rearers like to mix the powder the day before feeding.
  • Correct mixing is essential and you need a supply of clean water.
  • Powders mix better with hot water than with cold.

Concentrate feeds
  • Offer these unrestricted (ad lib) from Day 1 of the calf’s life.
  • Check the nutrient content. Feeds must have high energy, and be between 17-18% crude protein.
  • They must be palatable and pellets are usually better than meal and there is less waste. Calves love vanilla and molasses flavour.
  • Concentrate feeds are expensive so avoid waste.
  • Prevent meal becoming contaminated with rain or bird droppings. Use sheltered bird-proof feeders in the paddock.
  • When rationing concentrate feeds in troughs, make sure there is enough trough space for all calves to get a decent feed. About 45cm/calf is ideal.
  • Feed large and small calves separately.
  • Commercial mixes are good and contain all necessary minerals and trace elements. They may also contain a coccidiostat.
  • From about 3 weeks old calves will eat as much as 670g of meal/day and by 6-8 weeks they’ll eat up to 1kg/day.
  • By 8 weeks (weaning) they should also be eating about 2-2.5kg of good hay/head/day.
  • As dry feed intake goes up, so will water intake. Make sure you provide a good supply of clean water from Day 1.
  • Wherever possible, concentrates should be used as a supplement to good quality pasture. Get them out on to good pasture as early as possible as pasture is the cheapest feed.
  • The aim is to get calves to eat up to near 1kg of meal/day when they will be an efficient ruminant and will be ready for weaning.

Again - read the back of the bag to check the nutrient levels, and ask if you don't understand. Be very wary of the store assistant who says "we sell a lot of this one"!

Calf feeding systems

Ad lib feeding liquids
  • Here calves have 24-hour unrestricted access to liquid feed so they’ll drink a lot and grow fast.
  • It’s ideal where labour is short, but costs will be higher than restricted systems.
  • A wide range of feeders are available, from 200-litre drums to large commercial feeders pulled behind an ATV, or front-mounted on a tractor.
  • In some feeders the teats are at the top so the calf has to suck the milk up a tube, while in others the calf sucks from the base using gravity.
  • Have 3-4 teats on each 200-litre drum 750-850mm above the ground with no more than 20 calves/drum.
  • Before putting calves outside to an ad lib system, make sure they can drink at least 2 Litres at each of two feeds without stopping.
  • On the day of changeover to ad lib feeding, offer the calves 4 litres/head in a single feed, then put them immediately on to the ad lib feeder. This will prevent excessive gorging.
  • Milk consumption will fluctuate widely from 2.5 to 4 litres/calf/day. Budget on 6.5-8.5 litres/calf/day for general planning.
  • The feed will get more acid over time and this will reduce intake. So expect greater intakes after the drums have been washed out.
  • Wash the drums regularly with a high pressure hose.
  • Don’t dilute the feed in the drum with water as little is gained as growth slows up.
  • Make sure calves in each feeding group are similar in size, or the smaller ones won’t get enough to drink.
  • In the early stages, confine the calves to the area around the feeder so they don’t lose contact with the teats.
  • Never let ad lib feeders run dry.
  • The liquid is preserved by natural souring process into a yoghurt-like consistency. It may look terrible but as long as it has a yoghurt-like smell – then everything is working.
  • Keep mixing it daily with a plunger to keep the bacteria working. This will keep it thin enough for calve to suck through the tubes.
  • When feeding milk powders they may separate out into a watery component and a floating component which is fat and protein. Check what is coming out of the teat and if it’s watery, give the drum a good stir.
  • In hot weather add 5ml of hydrogen peroxide/Litre of milk to reduce spoilage. Generally you don’t need to do anything to prevent spoilage - just let the yoghurt process take its course.
  • Milk that has come from cows treated with antibiotics must be fed the same day. It will not form into yoghurt as all the good bugs have been killed. You should question whether to feed this contaminated milk at all to calves.

Restricted feeding
  • Here each calf drinks from its own container, e.g. a bucket or drinks from a communal drum from its own teat. There is a wide range of equipment available for this.
  • These feeders can be left in the paddock and the milk taken to them but they must be brought home for cleaning regularly. Or they can be filled at the shed and taken out to the paddock.
  • Calves can also be driven from the paddock to the shed each time for feeding.
  • Make sure group-fed calves are of similar size then hopefully they’ll drink at the same rate and receive similar amounts.
  • Watch for bullying and see each calf gets a fair share.
  • Don’t assume that a full belly seen from the outside proves that the calf is well fed.
  • In the early stages or with young calves, feed them twice-a-day.
  • To save labour, many rearers change to once-a-day feeding after 3-4 weeks. This will also encourage rumen development, as the calves will eat more dry feed.

Calf rearing on nurse cows
Having calves suck nurse cows is always an attractive way to rear them, as it seems natural and foolproof because you just let nature take its course. Suckled calves grow fast and always look good. But there are a few things to consider.

Advantage of nurse cows
  • Calves get warmth, shelter and social contact from their dam
  • Milk is always available and at a constant temperature.
  • Suckled calves grow well and have a natural “bloom”.
  • Labour input is minimal.
  • Calves are healthy and rarely get scours.
Disadvantages of nurse cows
  • Good cooperative nurse cows are vital and may be difficult to source. The cows available may all have problems such as mastitis, sore teats and may have been kickers in the milking parlour.
  • Good high-yielding cows will be expensive - needing extra capital.
  • The early stages of fostering may be labour intensive depending on the cow.
  • Nurse cows must be well fed if feeding many calves.
  • The cow may be slow to come on heat and get pregnant again.
  • Calves may be uneven in size at weaning.
  • Calves reared this way may be more prone to suckle herd mates.
  • Suckled calves may be less familiar with humans later in life.
  • Some heifer calves may come on heat and be mated by the bull running with the herd.
Choosing a nurse cow
  • Select a cow with a good milk supply. Remember she could produce more milk when suckling calves than when milked by machine, as the calves will empty her udder more frequently than twice a day.
  • Select a cow with good maternal instincts and temperament as she’ll have to rear extra calves to her own. She should accept strange calves readily so you don’t have to waste time bailing her up every time the calves are to be fed.
  • Dairy cows generally make better nurse cows than beef animals or crossbred beef x dairy stock as they are used to being handled.
  • Cows with dark coloured teats are preferable as they are less prone to sunburn and soreness.
  • Use cows with udders that allow calves access to all teats. Avoid old cows with large pendulous udders and massive teats that calves cannot get into their mouths and empty all quarters evenly.
  • Do not use cows that have had a history of mastitis as the calves may spread it as they go around trying to get milk from other cows in the herd that will let them suck.
How many calves per cow?

The answer can depend on these points:
  • The target weights you want for the calves – i.e. what weight by what age. A good average figure is 95-100kg by 12 weeks.
  • The milk production of the cow. Allow 4-5 litres/calf/day for average growth rates.
  • The facilities you have, e.g. yards and number of small paddocks.
  • Whether the calves have access to concentrate feed in a creep so the cow can’t eat it.


Calves at sale. Would you buy these?
The scour could be nutritional or something else!

  • Having too few calves/cow in the early stages can lead to scouring through overfeeding. What happens is that in the early morning the cow may be carrying 15-20 litres of milk and the first calf to suckle her before the arrival of its mates will gorge and inevitably scour.
  • This calf goes off its feed and the problem then occurs with the next calf down the pecking order.
  • In the early stages restrict the cow’s feed intake and feed her some hay in until the calves are big enough to handle all her production.
  • The other concern is that if the cow is not being milked out properly, this may cause a subsequent drop in production and possibly mastitis.
Very sick dehydrated calf with poor chances of survival

Cow/calf combinations
There are all sorts of cow-calf combinations to use to use up the cow’s excess milk. Here are some:
  • 2-3 calves/cow until weaning at 5-6 months of age.
  • 2-3 calves/cow for 6-7 weeks, followed by the same again. One of these calves could be the cow’s own calf. These calves suckle the same cow all the time.
  • 2-3 calves/cow in theory or more for 6-7 weeks but then it’s really a “free-for-all” where you don’t worry which calves are sucking which cows. Calves are removed and others put into the groups as they reach their target weights.
  • Combinations such as 3-4 calves for 5-6 weeks, followed by 2-3 calves for 5-6 weeks, then 1-2 calves until lactation drops in summer or autumn.
  • A cow bonds with its calf within 2-3 seconds after birth as soon as she has smelled it. Normally it’s not easy to bond her to another calf after that.
  • Cows vary enormously in their maternal
Fostering methods
  • Remove the cow’s own calf after 2-3 days and pen her up with some hungry foster calves.
  • Blindfold the cow while foster calves are introduced. This was an old trick which is now probably not very welfare friendly.
  • Cover the foster calves with odours such as Neat’s-foot oil to confuse the cow. She may lick the oil and encourage bonding.
  • Restrain the cow tightly in a race and let the calves suckle her from below the rails.
  • If the cow is suckling her own calf, introduce the extra calf to suckle from behind so it can’t be butted away. It will have to put up with the occasional dung anointment!
  • Tie a foster calf to the cow’s own calf using two leather dog collars and a 40cm length of chain. The chain joining the two collars must have a swivel in it. The cow has to accept the foster calf if it wants to let its own calf suckle.
  • Offer cows foster calves of the same colour. Cattle are supposed to have poor colour vision but they can have colour preferences when it comes to calves.
  • Offer the cow foster calves of similar size.
  • If the cow is being really uncooperative - try her with a big hungry calf that knows all the tricks to get a drink. This may break her resistance - or it may make her more determined to fight!

Feeding nurse cows
  • Nurse cows suckling 3-4 calves each could be producing up to 20 litres of milk/day and must be fed to that level.
  • A Friesian producing at this level would need 19kg of Dry Matter, a Jersey 14.5kg of DM and a Jersey x Friesian 17kg of DM.
  • Pasture is usually about 15% DM so the cow would have to eat 127kg each day. That’s a large heap of grass, so you would have to make sure it was available.

Tips to get a nurse cow to come on heat
Nurse cows that are producing a lot of milk and suckling a number of calves may be slow to come on heat after calving. Here are a few things to try to stimulate oestrus:
  • Don’t let the cow get too skinny before calving. She should be rounded on her hip and pin bones and not flat (i.e. at least condition score 5).
  • Wean the calves and watch for signs of heat. This sometimes occurs several days after weaning.
  • Run a bull with the cow or in the next paddock, which may encourage cycling. If you didn’t want the cow pregnant to that bull, you would need to use a vasectomised bull.
  • Remember that a cow’s well-grown bull calves could also mate her so watch out for this.
  • Use intra-vaginal devices to trigger oestrus. Seek veterinary advice on this.
Weaning multiple-suckled calves
  • Before weaning make sure calves are eating sufficient good quality pasture and concentrates to be gaining at least 0.5-0.6kg/calf/day and preferably nearer 0.7-0.9kg/calf/day.
  • Remove calves from the cow one at a time as they reach their target weights.
  • Batch weaning. Remove the whole group making sure the smallest in the group is heavy enough to avoid any weaning check.
  • Gradually weaning. Remove the calves gradually to reduce sucking opportunities.
  • If the calves are penned and let out for suckling, reduce the time intervals between sucklings and then stop abruptly.

Health of nurse cows
Nurse cows are prone to all the problems of milking cows. As they are given less supervision, don’t forget to watch out for cracked and sore teats, mastitis, milk fever and grass staggers at calving, and bloat.

Despite all
Despite all the information available these days on rearing calves, you have to ask why calves like the ones below are regularly offered for sale. How can anyone start off with a 35 kg calf and eight weeks later present stock like this for sale? It's basically poor nutrition which is bordering on contravening the Animal Welfare Act 1999, and under the Sale Yards Code of Practice, these calves really should not have been accepted for sale.


  1. T.Y.! Very informational! (Thank-You!)

  2. excellent article!Has given me lots of hints.