|Feeding And Management Of The Dairy Calf: Birth To 6 Months|
Raising young calves is one of the most often neglected jobs on the dairy farm but one of the most important economically. The future of the herd's milk production begins before the calves are born. How a heifer calf develops into her potential for milk production depends upon how well we raise and manage her. Holstein heifers must gain an average of at least 1.6 pounds per day from birth to calving, and jerseys must gain 1.1 pounds per day to attain the desired weight by 24 months of age. Too often, the future of the herd's production is in jeopardy because of the lack of attention to the care and feeding of the young calf.
The Mother's Dry Period
Success with the calf starts with proper care of the mother, especially during the dry period prior to calving. The cow needs a 45- to 60-day dry period to allow her to rebuild body energy reserves, regenerate milk secretory tissues, and develop the calf. Dry cows should be handled and fed so they will be in good but not fat condition at calving.
As calving time approaches, the cow needs to be moved to a clean, dry area. A clean pasture near the barn or house is an excellent area during favorable weather. A well-bedded, roomy area should be provided during bad weather. The amount of feed should be increased slightly so as to prepare the rumen for higher levels of feed after calving.
The cow should be observed closely as calving time approaches and during delivery, but assistance should be given only if needed. Assistance at delivery is a matter of experience and judgment. When in doubt, get help.
Calf mortality can be reduced if the following steps are taken at calving time:
- Clean the cow's udder if excess dirt is present.
- Clear the mucous from the calf's mouth and nostrils. Gently sliding a clean straw or twig up the calf's nose will help by causing the calf to sneeze.
- Dip the navel with a strong (7 percent) tincture of iodine solution to prevent infections.
- Dry the calf and place it in an individual hutch or pen. Vigorous rubbing is needed if the calf is chilled.
- Feed colostrum (first milk) as soon as possible after birth. A minimum of 10 percent of body weight should be fed within 6 hours of birth.
Feeding The Newborn
Colostrum contains a much higher content of energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals but lower lactose (sugar) than normal milk (Table 1). Colostrum provides an excellent source of nutrition, and the lower sugar content is less apt to cause scours (diarrhea in livestock). But, of more importance is the level of antibodies in the colostrum. Calves are born with no resistance to diseases and must acquire this resistance by absorbing antibodies from the colostrum. The calf can only absorb these antibodies within the first few hours of life, but the amount absorbed decreases rapidly and is essentially nil by 24 hours of age (Figure 1). The amount of antibodies that can be absorbed lessens as the hours increase between birth and the feeding of the colostrum. Therefore, calves should be fed colostrum as soon as possible after birth to obtain maximum absorption.
|2nd & 3rd
|Source: U. Minnesota|
Antibodies in the milk are in competition with bacteria such as E. coli for absorption sites on the gut wall. If E. coli, the bacteria found in manure, reach the intestinal wall before colostrum antibodies, the calf could easily get scours. On the other hand, if colostrum antibodies reach the intestinal wall first, the absorption of E. coli, and presumably other bacteria, is decreased. This is a case of first come, first served; that is, do we serve colostrum before the scours-producing bacteria are established or do we allow the bacteria to get established first?
Don't assume that a calf will suckle. Even when left on their own with their dam after birth, 25 percent of the calves do not nurse within 8 hours, and 10 to 25 percent do not get adequate colostrum. The udder conformation of the dam will also affect how soon the calf suckles (Table 2) and whether the calf gets an adequate supply of colostrum. A 90-pound calf should be given 3 to 4 quarts and a 50-pound calf should receive at least 1-1/2 to 2 quarts of the first-produced colostrum.
|Height of teats||Time to
6 hours of birth
|More than 3 inches above hock level||2.1||17|
|At hock level||3.5||28|
|More than 3 inches below hock level||5.3||45|
|Source: United Kingdom National Agricultural Center Calif Unit, as quoted by S. Brooke in Hoard's Dairymen. 1984.|
To insure that the newborn calf absorbs adequate antibodies, many producers
remove the calf from the cow at birth and immediately force-feed the calf
with a gallon (Holsteins) of colostrum. Force feeding may be done with a
gallon plastic milk jug connected to an inflation and flexible tubing which
is, in turn, fixed to a stomach tube (Figure 2). Stainless steel stomach
tubes are commercially available and may be gently passed down the calf's
esophagus while the calf is properly restrained. Care should be taken so
that the stomach tube is not forced into the windpipe. The force-feeding
of the full amount of colostrum at birth in this manner will ensure that,
even if colostrum quality is not excellent, sufficient antibodies are absorbed
to get the calf off to a healthy start.
The force-feeding apparatus is also excellent for administering electrolyte fluids to calves with scours. After every use, including the administration of colosi from, the apparatus should be cleaned and disinfected.
Extra colostrum should be frozen and stored for emergencies when a cow fails to provide colostrum. Frozen colostrum can last for up to a year without any significant loss of quality. Take care in thawing the colostrum, because overheating can destroy the antibody effectiveness. When given a choice, it is best to use colostrum from older cows, because they have had more opportunities to develop immunity than have younger cows. A "colostrometer" can be used when there is doubt about colostrum quality. This is an inexpensive way to insure that the colostrum you are giving is adequate.
Feeding The Calf Until 3 To 4 Months Of Age
For the first 3 days of life, feed the calf undiluted colostrum daily at about 9 to 10 percent of its body weight. Thereafter, feeding programs may differ, but all will have some type of liquid feeding until the calf can eat a sufficient amount of dry feed to meet its growth needs. The liquid diet can be whole milk, excess colostrum, nonsalable milk, or a commercial milk replacer. All of these can be used satisfactorily if sound practices are followed. A good rule to follow in feeding whole or non-salable milk is to feed about 8 percent of the calf's body weight in pounds of milk during the first 2 to 3 weeks and then gradually reduce the quantity until the calf is weaned at 4 to 8 weeks. Feeding a set level of 1 gallon per day for Holstein calves until a week or so before weaning has worked fairly well. In no case should the calf be weaned until she is eating a minimum of 2 pounds of grain starter per day.
Non-salable milk from cows treated with antibiotics for mastitis, uterine infections, or other problems can be used to reduce feed costs. However, mastitis organisms can be spread from one calf's mouth to the udder of another if calves are allowed to suck each other. These organisms are capable of surviving in the immature mammary gland to cause mastitis or blind quarters when the heifer comes into the milking string. Therefore, when waste milk is fed, calves should be housed so as to avoid contact with each other.
Partial or total substitution of milk or milk replacer can effectively reduce feed cost for calves. The 50 to 200 pounds of colostrum which a cow produces cannot be sold but should not be wasted; it is a nutritious food for calves. Research has shown that colostrum can be fed to calves at any age with good results. Colostrum contains about 1.5 to 2 times as much total solids as normal milk, so it can be diluted with water at about 2 parts colostrum to 1 part water if available amounts of milk are limited. Intermittent feeding of colostrum and whole milk has been fed without causing digestive upsets. However, this needs to be done with care.
Excess colostrum is difficult to utilize efficiently. Soured or fermented colostrum can be used if it is handled properly. With this approach, excess colostrum is stored in covered containers (preferably plastic), stirred daily, and fed within 2 weeks or less. Temperatures above 75°F cause excessive souring and result in poor calf performance. This problem can be reduced by the addition of appropriate acid preservatives. Adding 0.7 percent propionic acid on a weight basis has been an effective method of increasing the shelf life of fermented colostrum. The amount of colostrum to be fed and whether the colostrum should be diluted will depend upon the size of the calf and whether the colostrum is predominately first milk or milk from the second and third day. If the colostrum is predominantly first milk, it can be diluted at 2 or 3 parts of colostrum per 1 part of warm water. For example, 6 pounds of colostrum can be mixed with 2 pounds of water for an average size Holstein calf. You could use 4 pounds of colostrum and 1 to 2 pounds of water for smaller calves.
Calves can be raised successfully on a high quality milk replacer. The 1988 National Research Council (NRC) recommends a minimum of 22 percent protein and 10 percent fat in milk replacers (Table 3). However, milk replacers with 15 to 20 percent fat may help minimize scours and promote faster growth. A fiber level is not required, but low fiber (0.5 or less) indicates a predominance of high-quality milk products in the replacer. Milk protein sources in the replacer are a good indication of quality. The newborn calf is a simple-stomached animal that uses protein from milk or milk by-products more efficiently than protein from plant products. Various sources of protein are listed in Table 4 according to their acceptability in milk replacers. Good quality animal fats are preferable to most plant sources, but homogenized soy lecithin at 1 to 2 percent is beneficial. The calf can use lactose (milk sugar) and dextrose but cannot use starch or sucrose (table sugar). These products should not be used in liquid feeds.
3 to 6
|Average Daily Gain (lbs.)
|Average dry matter intake (lbs.)
|Body weight (lbs.)
|A. Optimum||B. Acceptable||C. Inferior|
|Skim milk powder
Dried whole whey
Casein (sodium caseinate)
|Specially processed soy protein
Distillers dried solubles
Brewer's dried yeast
Milk replacers are mixed with water and fed like whole milk. The recommended amount will vary with different manufacturers, and it is usually best to follow the manufacturer's directions. In general, milk replacers mix better if placed on top of warm water. It is very important not to use too much water to prevent scours and to allow capacity for other feeds. Free choice access to automatic feeders filled with acidified milk replacers has worked successfully if well managed.
Regardless of the type of liquid feeding used, there are some management considerations. It makes little difference whether the calf is fed from an open pail or by a nipple bucket. However, if nipple buckets are used, the nipple opening should not be enlarged. Some producers have widened the nipple opening to decrease the amount of time it takes a calf to suckle and thus decrease chore time. In some cases, this has caused "aspiration pneumonia." This pneumonia is caused by the presence of milk in the lungs of the calf which suckles extremely vigorously from a large nipple opening, taking on a large amount of milk. This type of pneumonia does not respond to antibiotics because it is not caused by an infectious agent. Whatever system is used, all pails should be cleaned after each feeding and between calves. Nipple buckets should be taken apart and cleaned, and this presents more of a problem for cleaning than an open bucket. Unless the temperature is below freezing, milk or milk replacers can be fed without warming. However, warming does help with mixing and may help the chilled or disease-stressed calf.
It is best to feed and observe the calf twice a day, because this allows early detection of illness. Calves can be fed liquid diets once a day during good weather if (1) ample milk or a high quality milk replacer (22 to 24 percent protein and 20 percent fat) is fed; and (2) calves are observed at least twice daily. When feeding milk replacer, you may have difficulty getting a sufficient amount of dry matter into calves on once-a-day feeding without causing scours.
Most calves are weaned at 5 to 8 weeks of age. However, calves may be weaned as early as 3 weeks if provided with a special, high quality dry starter ration containing milk products. If the calf will consume adequate starter ration, this earlier weaning will reduce replacement costs. Do not wean the calf until it is eating about 2 pounds per day of a grain concentrate mix.
Grain Mixes For The Young Calf
The key to early weaning and economical feeding is to get the calf eating dry feed as soon as possible. The calf can be offered a special grain starter as early as the first week of life, and grain should be offered by at least 3 weeks of age. The calf will not consume much dry feed during its first 3 weeks but will rapidly increase consumption when liquid feed is limited. The calf should consume at least 2 pounds of grain per day before she is weaned.
The calf should be given all of the grain starter mix which she will clean up each day. This may amount to as much as 4 to 6 pounds for some 3- to 4-month-old calves. The nutrient content recommended by NRC for a calf starter mix is listed in Table 5. The mix can be very simple; however, many different ingredients can be used in calf grain starters. Coarse ground or rolled grains will limit dust that can be detrimental to feed intake. Whole corn can be used efficiently but creates problems in most home mixes because calves tend to separate this out from "fines," which contain other nutrients. Adding 5 to 7 percent liquid molasses normally increases palatability. The grain mix should not contain urea.
|Soybean meal, 48%||377||337||358||312||283|
|T. M. Salt||1.5||1.5||1.5||1.5||1.5|
|a A minimum (per pound of mix) of 1,000 IU of Vitamin A, 140 of Vitamin D, and 11 of Vitamin E.|
Some sample grain mixes are given in , but many other options are available. Because of limitations on grinding and mixing, many producers find it simpler to purchase a commercial mix for calves. If this is done, make sure it contains the nutrient levels recommended by NRC as outlined in Table 5. Normally, it is best to obtain feeds low in fiber, preferably below 10 percent. The use of a coccidiostat (anti-parasite) in starter grain mixes is advised regardless of whether the mix is purchased or home mixed. An antibiotic (for example, Chlortetracycline at 0.5 mg per pound of body weight per day) may benefit growth, feed efficiency, or aid in prevention of bacterial diarrhea.
Providing calves with long hay at a young age (from 2 to 3 weeks of age) has some advantages if the amount of grain starter mix is not limited. The best hay should be provided on a daily basis. Adding chopped hay to the starter mix dilutes the energy value of the feed, often makes the mix too dusty, and limits intake. Studies have shown no advantage in adding chopped hay to the mix even at low levels; chopping just increases feed costs.
Too often, water is neglected for young calves. Fresh water should be provided daily throughout the year. Moreover, water should be available at all times during hot weather. During freezing weather, water should also be offered on a daily basis.
Cleaning And Sanitizing Utensils
Milk, feed, and water buckets are breeding grounds for organisms that cause calf diseases. Any utensil used for feeding calves, especially those used for milk, must be kept clean to prevent problems. Milk utensils should be carefully cleaned after each feeding.
Personalized, Tender Loving Care
Several sources claim, and farmers usually agree, that calves do better when cared for by a person who is willing to take the extra time and give the individualized attention that makes the difference in calf care. This type of attention should be given to the baby calves regardless of who cares for them.
Feeding And Care From 3 To 4 Months Until 6 Months Of Age
During this time, many changes take place for the young calf. After reaching 3 months of age, a gradual shift can be made from the calf starter mix to a growing ration so that the change is complete by 4 months of age. In general, at least a 15 to 18 percent protein grower ration will be needed to supplement most Alabama forages. If a complete grain mix is being fed to the milking herd, the calves can be fed the same mix when the same type of forage is fed to both calves and cows. Grain feeding should be limited to about 4 to 6 pounds up to 6 months of age. Some examples of grower grain mixes are given in Table 6.
|Ration 1||Ration 2||Ration 3||Ration 4|
Grass hay, Good
Grass hay, Aver.
|Good-Ex pasture||-||-||Free choice||-|
|Grain mix composition, lbs./ton(a)|
|Soybean meal 48%||380||362||280||221|
|Trace mineral salt||5||5||5||5|
|a Many other grains or by-products can be used.|
b Add sufficient vitamins to provide (per pound of mix) 2,000 IU of vitamin A, 280 IU of vitamin D, and 20 IU of vitamin E.
Heifers should be allowed continuous access to high quality forage during this period. They will normally eat about 3 pounds per day but should not be limited on hay. Calves as young as 3 to 4 months can be provided with pasture as the forage if: (1) the pasture is of excellent quality, and (2) the grain mixes as outlined above are provided for calves on pasture. If pasture is limited, supplemental hay should be provided along with the pasture. Silage can replace up to half the dry matter from hay after the heifer is 6 months old.
Like all warm-blooded animals, dairy calves have only a very few basic requirements for normal growth and health--fresh water, proper food, and adequate shelter. A dairy calf's housing needs are simple, but it takes a truly concerned and "caring eye" to see that these simple needs are met. There is probably no other management program that varies more from one dairy to the next as much as calf housing. A variety of housing systems work well, provided that each meets the following minimum requirements:
- Prevent direct contact among calves from birth to at least two weeks after weaning. This reduces the risk of young calves transmitting diseases to each other. Although a few producers report success with "warm housing" (indoors) or with elevated slotted-floor stalls, the most popular method of housing for young calves is the individual calf hutch. Suitable calf hutches can be made on farm or purchased. Three major advantages of hutches are: (1) they are relatively inexpensive, (2) they are easy to clean and sanitize after each calf, and (3) they are easy to move to a new, clean location after each use.
- Provide shade from direct solar radiation. It's not that the calf shouldn't have access to direct sunlight, but the calf must be allowed access to shade if needed. Heat-stressed calves will go off feed, become hyperthermic, and may even die. Hutches again work well for young calves up to 2 weeks after weaning. Be sure the hutches are well ventilated so that they don't become a miniature oven on hot humid days. Once older calves are grouped together, natural shade from trees or shade from properly managed shade structures (barn, shade netting, etc.) is adequate. Make sure there is enough square footage of shade for all calves. Check the shaded area frequently and prevent it from becoming a damp, manure-laden breeding ground for disease.
- Provide a clean, dry place for the calf to lie down. Moist bedding harbors harmful bacteria and conducts heat away from the calf's body. The constant exposure to a large population of harmful bacteria will eventually overpower the calf's natural resistance and predispose the calf to disease. If a calf has no alternative but to lie on damp bedding, the bedding will conduct body heat away from her. This loss of body heat steals energy that the calf could have used for growth. Hutches are frequently bedded with straw, wood shavings, sand, or fine gravel. Older calves grouped on pasture will tend to find clean dry places to lie down, provided there are adequate shaded areas.
- Provide ventilation without being drafty. A young calf's respiratory system normally harbors potentially harmful bacteria, but the calf's natural defense system keeps them in check. Stagnant air traps bedding vapors that irritate the calf's respiratory system and weaken the young calf's natural defenses. This can lead to labored breathing, coughing, pneumonia, etc. Too much ventilation can lead to drafts that create problems for calves in cold weather. Too much air movement, especially under a calf in an elevated stall with mesh floor, can chill the calf and rob it of energy needed for growth. The design of most commercial hutches allows steady air movement without draft. A large part of success with calf hutches depends on proper orientation with slope of the land, path of the sun, and direction of the prevailing wind.
Disease is actually built into the young-stock raising operations of many dairies. Because of the desire to save time and to make feeding easier, many dairies use calf barns in which newborn calves are commingled with older calves in common pens with relatively small spaces. The transmission of infectious disease-causing organisms between calves is facilitated in these barns, therefore they are often associated with significant amounts of diarrhea and respiratory disease. The desire to save time and stay warm during calf chores actually costs the producer money in the form of slower heifer development because of this built-in disease situation.
Conventional barn or shed housing often places very young calves in physical contact with older calves. These older calves can shed potentially harmful organisms to which the younger calves may not have a sufficient resistance. Because there is a difference in the disease resistance of calves of different ages, it is highly recommended not to allow older and younger calves to have physical contact during the first 3 to 4 months of age.
Although there are numerous ways in which dairy calves are housed from birth through weaning, individual outdoor single-calf housing is again the only satisfactory method from the standpoint of disease prevention and control. Therefore, free-standing outside individual calf hutches are the single best method for raising dairy calves through weaning. These hutches can be built relatively inexpensively or purchased ready-made. Because the ventilation of such outdoor hutches is excellent and the calves do not have physical contact with other calves, they facilitate the control of disease. They also optimize the calf's access to feed. Calves housed in this manner through weaning have shown improved weight gains over calves housed in enclosed barns or semi-enclosed flush pens. Young calves with pneumonia may develop chronic lung damage. Pneumonia is more apt to occur in conventional housing. These calves are condemned to slower gains, longer time to puberty, and delayed entry into the productive part of the herd, if they survive.
Although calves should remain in hutches for at least 2 weeks after weaning from liquid feed, they may remain in hutches until 4 months old without detrimental effects. The adjustment from individual housing to group housing or being handled with other calves can place undue stress upon the calves. Therefore, as the calves are removed from individual housing (that is, hutches), they should be placed in small groups (preferably less than 10 calves) of similar sized calves. This approach lessens the competition of calves for feed and assures that smaller calves receive adequate feed. Similar-sized heifers should be maintained together as they progress toward maturity. The "super calf hutch" or "counter slope bard' designs are suitable for calves after weaning because they allow for some shelter, grouping, and convenience in feeding. Whatever design is used, calves should be sorted by size when placed together after weaning. Including a coccidiostat such as decoquinate in the ration may improve weight gains during the post-weaning period.
Vaccinations To Increase Resistance To Disease
Increasing the quality of the colostrum through vaccination of pregnant dry cows 30 days before calving is a major way to increase a calf's resistance to disease during her first weeks and months of life. Such vaccinations to late pregnant cows should include: IBR (killed), BVD (killed), PI3 (killed), BRSV and E. coli. Late pregnant heifers should receive these vaccines plus a booster for Blackleg (Clostridium chauvoei). If Blackleg or other clostridial organisms (such as Clostridium perfringens types B and C) have been implicated in deaths of young calves, a booster vaccination is recommended for all pregnant cows 30 days before calving until the problem subsides. If calf scours caused by rota or corona viruses have been a problem, late pregnant cows and heifers should also receive a vaccination for those conditions. It also may be necessary to administer an oral vaccine for these viruses to newborn calves as soon as possible after birth, or 6 hours after they have received colostrum. By 5 months of age, calves should be vaccinated for Brucella abortus strain 19 (by an accredited veterinarian only) and Blackleg. Under certain circumstances your local veterinarian may recommend other vaccines. Heifers going into the breeding herd should receive boosters for these vaccinations by 12 months of age and also be vaccinated for Leptospirosis and campylobacter (vibrio). Always seek veterinary advice for your particular farm.
Calf Health And Dehorning
Diarrhea caused by bacterial, viral, and protozoal infectious agents are common in young calves. It is important to remember that the first requirement for a scouring calf is not antibiotics, but oral replacement fluids! A fluid electrolyte mix should be fed to scouring calves or carefully administered by stomach tube if the calf is too weak to suckle. Calves which are particularly weak and dehydrated require intravenous fluids administered by your veterinarian. Whole milk or milk replacer should not be fed simultaneously or mixed with fluid electrolytes because such mixtures may actually increase diarrhea. Because calves still require energy during sickness, milk should still be fed, but at a different time than electrolytes. Rather than feeding twice daily as usual, such calves should be offered four alternate feedings of fluid electrolytes and milk, twice daily for each (for example, fluids, milk, fluids, milk--2 to 3 hours between each). For the average Holstein calf, each of the four feedings should be about 1 quart.
Antibiotic therapy may be necessary under a protocol established by your veterinarian. This is particularly true in the case of calves with elevated temperatures, which may indicate pneumonia or septicemia. Treat early and treat aggressively in case of calf disease. Visit with your veterinarian and establish a written protocol for initial treatments for various calf diseases in your herd. Stick with this protocol and consult professional veterinary help at the first sign of a problem.
Any calf that dies should be necropsied by your veterinarian. This should be done as soon as possible following death. If your veterinarian is not available, you can submit the entire calf to the closest state veterinary diagnostic laboratory. Necropsy of all dead calves will monitor the causes of disease in your calves and allow for management adjustments to correct conditions and practices associated with disease.
Animals with horns or scurs can cause injuries to other animals and to handlers. Dehorning reduces this danger, and early dehorning decreases stress associated with this procedure. The earlier a calf is dehorned, the better. During the first 2 weeks of life, calves can be dehorned with a special caustic paste, while a special electric dehorner can be used up to 1 month of age. A Barnes or tube dehorner can be used to remove larger horns on older calves. If dehorning older animals cannot be avoided, it should be performed by a veterinarian or someone very experienced in dehorning larger animals.
Many producers raise male calves for beef (nonveal). For most operations,
an approach similar to that outlined above for heifers is satisfactory for
dairy beef through 6 months of age. For economical purposes, most dairy-beef
operations in the state should minimize the amount of salable milk or milk
replacer used. This can be done by assuring that calves receive a palatable
starter ration at an early age. For rapid gains, the grain mixtures in the
different tables should
be fed free choice with high quality forage. Bull calves should be dehorned and castrated at an early age.
Holsetin Beef Production is an excellent publication (NRAES-44) covering all aspects of dairy beef. This is available through the Northeast Regional Agricultural Engineering Service, Cooperative Extension, 152 Riley Robb Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca NY 14853.
A different feeding approach is taken when veal calves are raised. In
general, the basic feeding program for raising veal calves is unlimited
feeding of milk or milk products until marketed at 8 to 10 weeks of age.
An excellent program in nutrition, management, disease control, and selection
of calves is extremely important to obtain the desired weight, grade, and
livability with veal calves. Specific information can be obtained from our
office; by obtaining a copy of the NRAES-17 publication, Special-Fed
Veal Production Guide, from the Northeast Regional address given above;
or by contacting the American Veal Association, 1804 Naper Blvd., Suite
241, Naperville IL 60563.
For more information, contact your county Extension office. Look in your telephone directory under your county's name to find the number.
Published by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (Alabama A&M University and Auburn University), an equal opportunity educator and employer.
If you have problems loading this document, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for assistance.