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Calf & Heifer Rearing

Rearing calves into heifers and on to mature cattle is a major investment in both money and labour. By making sure that each calf receives the best possible treatment as a matter of course, the aim is to produce a strong, productive and profitable dairy cow.

  • Any problems with calving will inhibit calf vigour

  • Aim for at least 2 calving pens per 100 cows

  • Avoid having more than 1 cow in a calving pen at any one time

  • Re-bed and preferably clean out the calving pen after each calving; manure contains pathogens for scours, navel infections, mastitis, Johne’s and metritis

  • Let the cow lick the calf dry, then remove the calf

  • Disinfect the calf’s navel

  • Give the calf its first feed of colostrum

  • Aim for 3 to 4 litres of good quality colostrum (>50lgG)

  • Feed colostrum through a stomach tube or teat within the first few hours

  • Pasteurised, mature cow colostrum is best

  • Put the calf somewhere clean, warm and dry to sleep it off

  • House calves individually, to reduce transfer of pathogens

  • Feed no more than 1.5 litres per feed in the first 4 days

  • Try and feed them 3 times a day during this period

  • Feed more often rather than increase milk per feed

  • Feed milk powder rather than whole milk

  • Cows milk has too high a fat to protein ratio

  • Cows milk is low in magnesium, iron, vitamin E & selenium

  • Milk powder is a consistent composition

  • Milk powder better matches the calfs needs

  • Milk powder has a zero infection risk

  • Never use milk from antibiotic or poorly cows

  • Aim for 25% more pens than calves to allow for cleaning and disinfecting

  • Monitor airspeed and avoid draughts. The air speed at calf level needs to be below 2m/second

  • Make sure there is plenty of fresh air; this helps kill bugs!

  • Keep moisture to a minimum as it harbours a lot of bugs

  • Be aware of the temperature; calves get cold!

  • If any of these are sub-optimal, calves need to be kept warm to keep them growing - known as the lower critical temperature

  • Calf jackets are a great idea - as long as they’re breathable

  • Use a fan and duct system to provide plenty of fresh air without creating a big draught

  • Make sure the pens and building can be cleaned out easily

  • Be wary of scours; calves are at significant risk for the first 4 weeks & especially in the first 10 days. One case of scours costs around £50

  • Feed and bed your younger calves first, before moving onto older ones

  • Offer a rapidly fermentable calf pellet from 5 days old

  • Calves eating bedding have an increased risk of coccidiosis and diphtheria; offer roughage separately

  • Calves need to be eating at least 1.5kg of dry feed before weaning starts

  • The calf should weigh around 90kg at this point

  • This will happen at around 8 weeks of age

  • A gradual weaning of 10-12 days is ideal

  • Don’t combine weaning with any other changes, such as de-horning or grouping animals

  • Don’t grow heifers too fast during the pre-puberty period (4 to 10 months)

  • Growing quickly through this period lays fat down in the udder and restricts lifetime yield potential

  • Aim to serve calves at 380-400kg, around 15 months of age

  • Heifers will typically conceive at around 1.4 serves per pregnancy

  • Don’t move heifers until they are confirmed as at least 6 weeks in calf

  • Check them regularly - are they alert, active & eating?

  • Rumen fill score should be 4

  • Muck condition score should be 3 to 4

  • Body condition score should rise towards 3.5 by calving

  • Trim their feet before they calve

  • Treat them as a transition dry cow from 3 weeks pre calving

  • If you plan to turn her out as a milking cow, she needs to go out as a calf

  • Be aware of worms, ticks, fluke, lice, poisonus plants and injuries

  • Provide supplementary feed when required

  • Provide mineral supplementation


The treatment of scours in calves has two principle aims. Firstly, to cure the calf, but also to make sure the disease doesn’t spread to the other animals in the shed. The best way to determine which type of scour your calves are suffering from is in conjunction with your vet, but is also possible to diagnose and treat calves by having an understanding of the different signs.

A very poorly calf in week one, with runny, lumpy dung and a fever/chill, often signifies E.Coli. The best thing to do with this calf is speak to the vet. From weeks one to three, a calf with a yellowish, custardy scour that is slightly lethargic, but has no fever has most likely got a nutritional scour. Reducing the amount of milk fed for two feeds, then steadily increasing will help; as will working more carefully and hygienically.

During the second week of life, Rotavirus can be a problem. Typically this is characterised by a yellowish scour, with a consistency between a paste and a liquid. The calf’s temperature will have dropped to between 38°C and 39.5°C. Feeding more often (up to 6 times a day) can help, as can feeding electrolytes. Another alternative is to add 10% good quality colostrum. In the calf’s second and third weeks, a watery scour coloured white, yellow or green (often containing blood) can highlight a problem with Cryptosporidiosis. Calves will need to be treated with drugs and fed more often. If this is a constant problem, check the hygiene of calf management, as well as colostrum protocols.

Once a calf is over four weeks old, it will be at risk of Coccidiosis. The muck will be a brownish-green colour, quite runny and often bloody too. The calf will most likely be dehydrated, losing weight and possibly straining as well. Coccidiosis will need treatment with drugs. It can be prevented by avoiding feed getting contaminated with dung, good hygiene and the availability of fresh, clean water. There are of course other types of scour and illness in calves, many of which are contagious to humans. Always wash your hands after handling calves.


with Bill Hardman, Technical Manager

Heifer rearing is the second largest expense in dairy herds, accounting for 20% of total production costs. Of course, most of the cost is upfront with the return not coming until later. These costs go towards feed, labour, bedding, veterinary work and reproduction. “The costs of heifer rearing are significant”, states Bill, “but it still pays to provide every calf with the best possible treatment”.

The most cost effective time to calve a heifer into the herd, is around 24 months of age. In order to do that, heifers need to be big enough to serve by 15 months of age. “Heifers need to weigh around 380 – 400kg at bulling, and in order to achieve this by 15 months they need to get a really good start.” explains Bill.

“The average cost of getting a calf to weaning is about £200, which is only about 15% of the total cost of rearing a heifer, so it pays to give them the best of everything whilst they’re young” The average age at first calving in the UK is still around 29 months of age (NMR, 2015), and that means that an average 100 cow dairy herd, with a 25% replacement rate, is having to rear an extra 15 to 20 heifers than they would if they calved at only 24 months. “Calving heifers earlier reduces the overall rearing cost, and provides surplus heifers that can be used to expand your herd, or sold on”, concludes Bill.

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