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Keeping Calves Healthy this Spring

Keeping Calves Healthy this Spring

Stephen O’Callaghan, Walsh Scholar, Teagasc Meath, discusses the critical aspects of calf rearing, emphasizing the importance of calf health for achieving growth targets and ensuring animals thrive.

Calving is now in full swing on most farms across the country, and an important factor that must be considered is calf health. When it comes to calf health the old proverb rings true “Tús maith leath na hoibre” – “A good start is half the battle”. We need our calves thriving from the off in order to meet weight for age targets, and healthy calves are the first step towards boasting thriving animals.  Calf health depends on the quality and management of the calf, particularly during the first six weeks of life. There are several key factors to consider to ensure optimum calf health.

Optimum animal health Feeding concentrates & fibre Water intake Feeding schedules, milk & milk feeder management Selecting/ purchasing a good calf 10 principles of good calf rearing Adequate ventilation Adequate colostrum intake Stress- reduced transport & habituation Correct pen size & airspace Housing husbandry

10 Principles of Good Calf Rearing


We want to reduce the amount of germs that calves are exposed to. This is influenced by the housing facilities and stocking rate of calves. The main qualities that are essential for calf housing are good ventilation, draught free, warm, dry, clean and cleanable. Clean dry bedding is fundamental as calves should have enough straw for “nesting”. A good way of testing if bedding is sufficient is: if you put a knee down in the calf pen would it get wet? If the answer is yes, then the bedding isn’t up to scratch.

It is important that calves have sufficient space in the pen, you should give them an allowance of at least 1.5m2 per calf. You should also try to group calves according to age, size, and in groups of no more than 10.

Biosecurity is an important concept to consider on farms. Diseases can transfer to and from the farm on people, footwear, and equipment. Take measures such as disinfection and foot dips to minimise the risk of disease transfer to and from the farm at all times.


Colostrum management is an extremely important aspect to consider as it is vital for the transfer of antibodies from the cow to the calf

Do you know the Colostrum 1, 2, 3 Rule?

  1. Use Colostrum from the 1st milking for the 1st  feed
  2. Feed Colostrum within the first 2 hours of birth
  3. Feed at least 3 Litres

Transition milk is the milk following colostrum (milking’s 2-8) that is non saleable. This milk contains high levels of antibodies and must be fed to calves to get full benefit. Calves should receive at least 4 feeds of this transition milk.  You should not offer milk from cows treated with antibiotics or those being treated for mastitis to calves, due to the risk of disease transfer and antibiotic resistance.

feeding calf colostrum


The first few weeks of the calf’s life has a huge effect on performance for the rest of the year. Feed efficiency: the ability of an animal to convert feed to growth, is at its highest during the milk feeding period. Feeding a high quality milk replacer, feeding the right amount, and introducing crunch early are fundamental. Calves should be getting at least 6 litres of milk replacer per day, mixed at a concentration of 125grams/litre. The water should be between 37-39 degrees at mixing. A few key components to watch out for when purchasing milk replacer are: minimum of 23% protein (Whey protein), less than 7.5% Ash, and a minimum 0.8% Calcium

Water is extremely important for rumen development in young calves and helps to drive daily weight gain. A fresh and clean supply should be made available to calves at all times.

Chopped straw and an 18% palatable calf crunch should be made available to calves and kept fresh. Coarse rations are more palatable and will help stimulate rumen development better than pelleted rations.


We want to avoid the occurrence of bloat in young calves as it can prove fatal. Bloat is the excess fermentation of milk replacer or whole milk in the stomach of the calf. It is caused by inconsistent feeding (time and concentration of feed), low water intake, and poor equipment hygiene.

Purchasing Calves

If you are purchasing dairy bred calves try to minimise the amount of herds you are buying from as this will lower the risk of bringing disease onto your farm. You should try to get calves from a known source, where the health status, cow type, and sire are known to you. Avoid mixing calves of different ages.


You should consult your vet and put a vaccination and dosing regimen in place for your farm. Vaccination will help to reduce health problems and associated dips in animal performance, however they will not make up for poor management.

Sick calves should be removed to an isolation pen for treatment to avoid the spread of disease. In event of a disease outbreak: Engage with your vet and get a proper diagnosis as early and effective treatment are essential.