Our Organisation Search
Quick Links
Toggle: Topics

Calf rearing: Getting the basics right

Calf rearing: Getting the basics right

Gordon Peppard, Teagasc DairyBeef 500 Advisor, looks the important performance targets for calf rearers this spring, while also providing a guide on the typical variable costs associated with calf rearing.

Performance targets

Many bought in calves will have either come through marts/agents and will have been grouped from many different sources. All these factors will increase the risk of stress and disease. It is therefore recommended to isolate purchased calves from calves already on the farm for up to one week to minimise the risk of disease transfer. House in a clean, disinfected pen bedded with plenty of straw.

During the first 12 weeks of life up to weaning, an average daily live weight gain of 0.7kg/day should be achieved. After this, a growth rate of 0.8kg/day should be targeted in the first season at grass until housing. Mortality up to three months of age should be less than three percent and overall treatments to the batch of calves should ideally be under 10%. If you are higher than these figures, there may be an underlying problem on your farm and veterinary intervention may be required.

A simple rule of thumb target is to double the birth weight in eight weeks. This will require excellent management from day one. For example, a 40kg calf at birth needs to reach 80kg in 56 days. As this is an increase in weight of 40kg, an average daily gain of 0.70kg/day will be required every day to achieve this.

Bought in calves - the first feed

Calves may be stressed and dehydrated following arrival on to your farm. Allow them two to three hours of rest before feeding. The first feed should be an electrolyte, which are formulated to promote absorption of specific nutrients and to replace water and minerals that are lost during these stress periods.

Milk replacer

In order to achieve the target growth rates as set out above, up to 750g of milk replacer per day, supplemented with good quality concentrates, should be fed. Feed over two feeds, three litres in the morning and three litres in the evening. Don’t move to once-a-day feeding until the calf is at least four weeks old and ideally older.

The three litre milk mix should consist of 2,625ml of water and 375g of milk replacer to give a 12.5% solids mix. This equates to 125g of milk replacer per litre. Protein levels in the milk replacer should be 20-26% and consist predominantly of milk proteins. Be consistent when feeding calves, feed at the same times each day, at the same rate at the same temperature of 37 – 39oC. Cleanliness and hygiene are also critical.


Clean, fresh water should be available at all times for the calf to access. Check troughs daily to ensure that there is no dirt or faeces in it. It is important to remember that milk is a food and not a drink, therefore water is essential to the young calf. For every one kg of meal that a calf will eat, they will drink four to five litres of water. Early concentrate intake is stimulated by water intakes. Insufficient water will slow rumen development and reduce feed conversion rates.

Concentrates and roughage

Concentrates are essential for early rumen development and to achieve 0.7kg of average daily gain. Feed a good quality, 18-20% crude protein, palatable calf starter from day three, this should be replaced daily to keep it fresh.

From 2-3 weeks of age, intakes will gradually increase. By 6-8 weeks, calves should be eating 0.7-1kg of calf starter per day.

Ideally hay should not be fed in the early rearing phase. The young calf finds it difficult to digest it before three months of age and can leave calves pot-bellied. Feed good quality, clean, dust-free straw in racks, and do not expect calves to eat it from their bed. Don’t over feed straw as this may reduce intakes of concentrates.


At weaning, your calf should be at least 90kg and ideally closer to 100kg. Ensure that calves are eating at least 1.5-2kg of concentrates per day at weaning. Don’t forget, when calves are weaned off of milk they need to get all their requirements from concentrates and grass/silage, so ensure they are eating plenty before removing the milk.

Gradually wean calves over a number of days and do not plan activities such as dehorning, changing social groups etc. around this time as you need to keep stress to a minimum.

Table 1: Birth to weaning targets

Stage targetsDateWeight targetNotesAverage daily gain required
Birth February 15 40kg Birth weight  
Purchased (2-3 weeks old) March 1 50kg At least two weeks olad and 45-50kg 0.67kg
8 weeks old April 12 80kg Double birth weight 0.70kg
Weaning (11-12 weeks) May 10 100kg Minimum of 90kg 0.72kg

Calf rearing costs

Table 2 outlines the typical costs associated with calf rearing from purchase at two to three weeks of age up to weaning at 11 to 12 weeks old. In order to achieve the targets as outlined in table 1, a high level of nutritional feed and excellent management are required.

Table 2: Typical variable costs associated with calf rearing from purchase to weaning

Milk replacer ~1,5 bags per calf €75
Concentrate 75kg of calf concentrate €34
Vaccinations Pneumonia, IBR, coccidiosis, clostridial €27
Vet  Treatments, call out etc. €15
Straw Bedding and feed €30
Levies/transport Depending on source €10*
Mortality <3% to weaning €5**
Total   €196

*Depends where calf is sourced, local farmer, agent, mart. ** Depends on value of calf. €150 assumed purchase price of calf here.

The costs assume approx. one and a half bags of a high-quality milk replacer are fed per calf. At €50 per bag, this is €75 in total. Starter calf ration is generally more expensive and, as a result, the total for concentrate is estimated at €34. Excellent attention to detail and particularly animal health are required at this very young age of the animal’s life. Therefore, a fully planned vaccination programme is essential to maximise performance. The costs above are associated with an excellent vaccination programme covering pasteurella and viral pneumonia (RSV & PI3), IBR, coccidiosis and clostridial diseases.

Vet costs allow for call outs and treatments to sick calves. There will vary greatly from farm to farm and is given as an average cost per calf for the whole group reared.

With the tight supply and high demand for straw, the cost for bedding and feeding is considerable.

Depending on where you source your calves there may be little or no levies and transport fees, i.e. collecting calves yourself from a neighbour down the road, versus buying in the mart and obtaining a haulier to bring them home.

Mortality cost will vary relative to the value of the calf.

The above table represents a guide to the typical variable costs associated with calf rearing from purchase to weaning. It will vary considerably from farm to farm and from system to system. The cost of the calf and fixed costs are not included. There is also no cost included for own labour in feeding, managing and rearing the calves to weaning.

Also read: How this DairyBeef 500 farmer turned the tide on pneuminia

Also read: What do dairy-beef farmers what in potential calves?