Farm Ireland

Tuesday 18 September 2018

Top tips on taking the stress out of calf rearing

Good management is required from day one to ensure calves achieve their weight gain and health targets, writes Gordon Peppard

David Drum from Athboy, Co Meath is one of the farmers in the Teagasc Green Acres Calf to Beef programme
David Drum from Athboy, Co Meath is one of the farmers in the Teagasc Green Acres Calf to Beef programme

Many bought in calves will have come through marts or agents and will have been grouped from many different sources. All these factors will increase the risk of stress and disease.

That's why it's recommended that purchased calves be isolated 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, a daily live weight gain of 0.7kgs per day should be achieved, after this a growth rate of 0.8kgs per day should be targeted in the first season at grass until housing.

Mortality up to three months of age should be less than three per cent and overall treatments to the batch of calves should ideally be under 10pc.

If you are higher than these figures there may be an underlining problem requiring veterinary intervention.

A simple rule of thumb target is to double the birth weight in eight weeks.

Clean, fresh water should be available at all times - calves require five litres of water for every one kg of meal they consume
Clean, fresh water should be available at all times - calves require five litres of water for every one kg of meal they consume

This will require excellent management from day one. For example, a 40kg calf at birth needs to reach 80kgs in 56 days. As this is an increase in weight of 40kgs, an average daily gain of 0.70kgs per day is required for every day.

Bought In Calves: The First Feed

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Calves will 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, calves should be fed 750g of milk replacer per day supplemented with good quality concentrates. Feed twice a day - 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.

The three litre mix should be 2,625mls of water and 375g of milk replacer to give a 12.5pc solids mix. This equates to 125g of milk replacer per litre.

Protein levels in the milk replacer should be 23-26pc and consist predominantly of milk proteins.

Be consistent when feeding calves. Feed at the same times each day, at the same rate and at the same temperature of 37 to 39C. Cleanliness and hygiene are critical.


Clean fresh water should be available at all times. Check troughs daily to ensure that there is no dirt or faeces. 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

Feed a good quality 18-20pc crude protein palatable calf starter from day three. This should be replaced daily to keep it fresh.

Concentrates are essential for early rumen development and to achieve 0.7kgs of average daily gain.

From two to three weeks of age, intakes will gradually increase. By six to eight weeks calves should be eating 0.7 to 1kg of calf starter per day.

Do not feed hay: the young calf finds it difficult to digest before three months of age and it 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 90kgs and ideally closer to 100kgs.

Ensure that calves are eating at least 1.5 to 2kgs of concentrates per day at weaning. 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 taking away the milk.

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


Table 2 outlines the typical variable costs associated with calf rearing from purchase at two to three weeks of age up to weaning at 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.

The costs assume around two bags of a high quality milk replacer are fed per calf.

At €40 per bag this is €80 in total. Starter calf ration is generally more expensive; therefore the total for concentrate is estimated at €25. Excellent attention to detail and particularly animal health are required at this very young age of the animal's life. 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 and 10 clostridial diseases. Vet costs allow for call outs and treatments to sick calves. In some cases they may be less and in others more.

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, ie collecting calves yourself from a neighbour one mile down the road, versus buying in the mart and obtaining a haulier to bring them home.

Mortality will vary with the value of the calf.

The 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. Cost of the calf and fixed costs are not included.

Gordon Peppard is programme advisor for the Teagasc Calf to Beef Programme

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