By Dr Clive Dalton
Rearing a few calves is regularly seen as a way to make some extra cash, on both large and small farms. There are many disappointments with the outcome. Here’s a very simple system if your time and costs are important issues:
Source the calves
Don't buy your first calves from a saleyard. Buy them privately
from a reputable farmer with healthy stock
- Don’t start rearing any calves until mid August. Calves are more plentiful by then in the North Island and consequently much cheaper than when they first start coming on the market in July.
- Calves are not small cows! They are very delicate creatures that need extra care.
- Rear only 10-12 calves to start off with. Never be tempted to rear more than 15.
- Don’t buy them from the saleyard – and certainly not in “dribs and drabs” from saleyards and different farms, as there’s a high chance you’ll get a mixture of infections as a bonus.
- Find a top dairy farmer who has a good herd of Friesians and make an arrangement to buy and collect the whole dozen calves in one pick up. The advantage of this is that all the calves will be of similar age, and they will all have had plenty of colostrum.
- Explain to the farmer that this is your first-time operation and offer him/her $10 more per head above the asking price for their cooperation. Give the farmer some feedback on how the calves do as this will be a good investment for next season if you want more calves.
- A small calf weighs <37kg,> 43kg. Buy the mediums if you have a choice. Don’t buy the small ones.
What you’ll need
- A 20 litre bucket.
- A calf milk feeder with teats for 12 calves.
- A rain-proof and bird-proof meal feeder for the paddock.
- A paddock hay rack and some good hay.
There's a choice of milk powder brands. Which one is the best - never the cheapest.
Read the label carefully.
Read the label carefully.
- Feed a good quality proprietary milk powder and follow the mixing instructions on the bag - to the letter. Never cut corners or listen to advice from those who know better than the manufacturer. Avoid like the plague anyone with a "cheap" source of milk powder!
- Offer a good quality calf meal from Day 1. The calves will start licking it at first but then soon start nibbling the pellets. Keep feeding this meal right up until they reach at least 100kg.
- Keep all utensils clean- wash in cold then hot water (in that order) and disinfect daily.
- If labour is no problem, feed the calves 2 x day for as long as you can be bothered. Otherwise feed them 2 x day for the first 2-3 weeks then go on to 1 x day feeding.
- Have some good shelter in the paddock or free access to a clean shed.
- As the calves grow, don’t increase the liquid and make more work for yourself, but increase the concentration of the powder. Follow the instructions on the bag - exactly.
- Wean calves off milk at 80kg for Friesians and 70kg for smaller breeds and make sure they have some good clean pasture with grass and clover and not just weeds.
- Keep the hay racks full of good quality hay all the time.
- If the pasture is good and they are eating a lot, restrict the meal fed at pasture to 1kg/head/day. They’ll probably restrict themselves.
- Calves doing well should be growing close to 1kg/head/day.
- If they are not doing well, keep feeding them meal for a few more weeks and check their growth rate.
- Make sure the meal contains a coccidiostat to prevent coccidiosis.
- If you want to castrate the bulls, then do it with rubber rings before 3 weeks old, and have all calves disbudded by your vet using an anaesthetic before 6 weeks old.
- Check with your vet about giving the calves their clostridial vaccinations (blackleg) usually before weaning.
- Check for lice after week 4-6 and treat if needed.
- You should not need to drench for worms – and before you do, check with your vet.
- If the weather is awful – put a cover on each calf. Watch for lice under the cover.