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Check list to prepare for purchasing calves

Check list to prepare for purchasing calves

Alan Dillon, DairyBeef500 campaign manager, writes about the most important considerations when preparing for purchasing calves.

In the next 4-8 weeks, roughly 400,000 to 450,000 calves will arrive on beef farms with the majority taken to either finished beef or to forward store stage. Due to seasonal nature of calving in Ireland farmers really have only one relatively short window to source dairy beef calves at value. It is becoming more common each year to see calf prices drop substantially once the glut of calves arrives to sale in early to mid March. While this represents a chance to purchase calves at value it means farmers need have all their ducks in a row within the next 4 -5 weeks to purchase calves en masse when the main supply arrives.

To do list

Sheds cleaned out

Sheds must be cleaned out and disinfected prior to calves arriving. Ideally sheds should be powerhosed, rinsed with disinfectant and allowed to dry out for a few weeks before being bedded for calves

Bedding requirements

Straw is extremely scarce this year and farmers need to ensure they have adequate supply to meet the demand of bedding young calves during cold days in February and March. Other material such as woodchips, rough hay or miscanthus if available could be used as a sub bedding later with straw bedded on top of the layer to allow calves to nest. If anything, this will allow scarce straw supplies to be stretched out.

Electrolytes and probiotics

While no one wants to think of the hassle of dealing with calves scouring, with any large numbers purchased there will inevitably be the odd case to be dealt with. Ensure you have electrolytes to hand to keep essential salts in calves that are lost through scour while some form of probiotic additive for a number of days may help the calves stomachs recover once the scour has passed.


The majority of monitor farmers in DairyBeef500 are using vaccines to calves either a day or 2 after arrival on farm or a few days prior to leaving the dairy farm. Intranasal vaccines covering calves for virus such as RSV and Pi3 while IBR vaccines can be given intranasally also. Intransal vaccines work faster typically than injectable vaccines but have a shorter lifespan.

Milk replacer

Talk to your milk replacer supplier about what standard you require. Milk replacer costs have dropped on 2022 and 2023 prices but are still much higher than before price inflation took off. Ensure you have a quality product on farm made with either skim or whole milk powder or a mixture of both. Protein content typically used for calf to beef farms ranges from 21-23% and while there are some higher spec heifer rearer powders available they are typically more expensive than the ones bought for beef calves.


It is important to get calves eating as much concentrate as possible early on to reduce the volume of milk replacer required and to ensure good rumen development. A ration with molasses incorporated will ensure palatability while protein contents typically range from 17-18% at this stage of life. Access to roughage is important also, with straw so scarce this year, good quality hay or haylage needs to be available to calves. Clean water is needed at all times also.

Calf quality

The CBV or Commercial Beef Value is the new tool of choice for farmers looking to buy beef calves. It focuses on the beef traits of the calf and strips out maternal traits that aren’t relevant to someone finishing cattle. Where this tool will be extremely useful is in identifying better quality calves within a breed on farm. It will allow farmers to avoid over paying for calves, which have used beef (or dairy) bulls with weak beef traits. Farmers need to remember within each breed there are as many good bulls as there is poor bulls and this traits may not be visible in a 3 week old calf. Every dairy farmer will be able to print off their CBV profile of the calves for sale once a sire is registered. If no sire registered then no CBV will show.

Labour saving

Ensure you have your farm set up that each feeding time and herding time of the calves can be done as quickly as possible. Many farmers rearing calves are working off farm and while the work can be done routinely, ensuring the mixing station for milk replacer and the set up for feeding calves is as labour efficient as possible will make rearing calves a more enjoyable experience.