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Calf Rearing - The First 3 months

12 April 2018
Type Media Article

By Gabriel Trayers, Teagasc Adviser, Galway/Clare Regional Unit

The last few years has seen a large increase in the national dairy herd to almost 1.3million cows. This has been due to the abolition of milk quotas in 2015, resulting in many farmers increasing dairy cow numbers, pushing up milk production and output.  The increase in cow numbers has resulted in more beef type calves being available from the dairy sector. The Teagasc Green Acres Calf to Beef programme targets a net margin of €500/ha (excluding premia). To achieve this level of profit depends on a lot of variables such as stocking rate, animal health and maximising the use grass but how the calf is managed in the first 12 weeks is critical to the success of the system. The overall aim is that the calf is weaned at 100kg live weight, at 11-12 weeks and is then turned out to grass. The following are the key points; 

Purchasing Dairy Bred Calves: 

Purchase calves from a known source, where the health regime, type of cow and sire used is known to you. Do not buy from too many sources as doing this will increase the risk of importing disease into your herd. Avoid mixing calves of different ages. On arrival on your farm, ensure these young animals are housed in a clean, dry, well ventilated, well bedded, draught free calf shed with fresh clean water available. Don't skimp on straw. When settled, calves should be given 2 litres of electrolytes. The next day , the calf should be given 2 litres of milk twice a day and gradually built up to 3 litres twice a day. Where you are buying in a large number of calves annually, you should have a health protocol drawn up with your vet so that you know your vaccination and dosing regime. Consider buying calves that are at least 1 month old to minimise health risks.

Management and Feeding of Dairy Bred Calves:

The first few weeks of feeding has a huge impact on the performance of these calves for the rest of the year. Feeding a high quality milk replacer, feeding enough of it, getting them onto calf crunch early and keeping a high health status in the calf rearing shed are all essential. The traditional two litres of milk replacer, fed twice a day, is no longer considered adequate. Most calves should be getting at least six litres of milk replacer per day (1.3gallons) where the concentration is 125g per litre of water. Ensure the water is between 37-39 degrees at mixing. The four must haves in a milk replacer are;

  • Minimum of 23% protein (whey protein)
  • Ash % is to be no greater than 7.5%
  • Minimum 0.8% calcium
  • A trusted supplier

From four weeks of age, calves can be fed milk once per day which will reduce labour requirement - make sure they are fed at the same time every day and ideally in the morning. Calves should be eating 1kg of concentrate before moving to once a day feeding. Use chopped straw rather than hay as a fibre source and both straw and a palatable crunch should be available to the calves at all times. Keep dry feed fresh. The aim is to have the calf eating 1.5kgs to 2kgs of crunch at weaning. A 18% protein calf ration will be sufficient.

Housing Requirements

It is critical than calves have sufficient space.  At the start , when calves are small it is tempting to add additional calves to the pen. A minimum of  1.5 sq.m/calf  is required. Try and group calves according to size, age and in batches of no more than  10. Fresh water and a dry bed are critical to the performance of the calf.  In the event of having a sick calf, remove immediately into an isolation area to reduce the risk spreading  the disease .


Rearing calves requires a high level of management, particularly in the first couple of  weeks. As a rule of thumb a calf must gain 0.7kgs every day on your farm to reach target weaning weight at 12 weeks.