January 25, 2009

Cattle farm husbandry – when to remove a calf

Cattle, farming, husbandry, calving, removing a calf, advice, when to remove calf, options, welfare of cow & calf

By Dr Clive Dalton

Bonding of cow & calf only takes a few minutes (Photo Karen Managh)


  • Nature never intended a cow to lose its calf soon after birth. In the wild the calf stays with the cow until it’s sibling is born a year later.
  • Many consumers around the world have now taken an interest in this subject, and no doubt this will increase as they are concerned about the welfare of the animals that provide their food.
  • A cow bonds with her calf in a matter of minutes after birth, and this is based on smell and licking to stimulate blood flow. So removing the calf at any stage is always going to be stressful.
  • In the past on small dairy farms a calf was left on its mother for four days. This allowed it time to get plenty of colostrum containing valuable antibodies for protection against diseases. After four days the calf was removed and milk sent to the factory.
In dairy cows
  • But things have changed on today‘s farms where more cows are milked. First there is a need for an efficient management routine where correct calf identification and transporting them to the calf unit can be a full-time job for a staff member. Leaving 20-30 new-born calves in a paddock with their mothers complicates management.
  • The cow’s first milk (colostrum) is now in demand as a special health food so it’s important to get this removed from the cow as soon as possible. The calf can then be given an accurate feed of colostrum by a teat.
  • The other benefit of milking the cow out properly lessens the risk of bacterial infection from the environment, which includes the calf’s mouth.
  • So the best practice at present is to remove the calf at birth which is less stressful for both cow and calf.
  • Raw juicy navels need to be treated with iodine as early as possible after birth to prevent infections. An extra treatment the day after birth is a good idea too.

In beef cows
  • The newborn calf needs to finds the teat and drinks enough colostrum soon after birth.
  • The minimum for the calf (from the teat or fed to it) is two litres before six hours after which the calf’s small intestine will not absorb the large antibody molecules.
  • Colostrum is a highly nutritious feed and as much as possible should be fed to the calf after the initial stages.
  • Some older cows have very large teats and a small calf often cannot drink from them so will miss out on its colostrum. It may only suck on one easily accessible teat, with the risk of mastitis developing in the others and it may be weeks before a calf can effective empty the udder. The cow may need to be milked out if this happens or risk mastitis.
  • Cows with very hard udders and teats may not welcome handling, as they are often sore, so make sure they are properly restrained to avoid being kicked. This will certainly be a risk if the cow has mastitis seen by a quarter showing pain, heat, swelling and redness.
  • Finding the teat can be a hazardous task for a newborn calf, especially if it’s mother is a heifer and has never had this experience. An old cow will stand still and encourage the calf to move to the rear by licking it’s tail head, but a heifer may keep moving to face the calf licking its head so preventing it feeding.

All-round best option
Remove the calf at birth and get it off the paddock into a clean dry pen to give it a measured feed of its mother’s colostrum.

This material is provided in good faith for information purposes only, and the author does not accept any liability to any person for actions taken as a result of the information or advice (or the use of such information or advice) provided in these pages.

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