NZ Research unit - calf rearing and health advice

Set up
Dr Paul Muir
  • BEFORE YOU START: Plan ahead – this means having the facilities, milk powder, feed etc ready before the calves arrive. Preparation, motivation and good attitude are critical to a successful operation.
  • FACILITIES NEED TO BE: Warm and dry with suitable animal bedding (bark chips or untreated sawdust). Designed for easy cleaning, good drainage and an area of about 1.5m2 per calf. Good air flow for ventilation, but without draughts at calf level.
  • CALVES NEED TO HAVE: A good water supply that is kept clean at all times. A supply of roughage - clean straw or hay with minimum clover content. This should be freely offered until 10 weeks of age. A continuous supply of fresh pellets available (ad-lib) from day one.
  • YOU NEED TO HAVE: A source of warm water (for mixing milk powder). Milk powder, partition feeders, mechanism for mixing milk e.g. whisk, buckets, cleaning solution, scrubbing brush, pellet and hay/straw feeders. Animal health remedies such as: electrolytes, scour pills, tube feeder and one or two calf covers or a heat lamp. The right attitude ... and do read the instructions.
  • SET YOUR MINIMUM WEIGHTS AND MAXIMUM PRICE: If not purchasing the calves yourself, tell your agent what minimum weight you want to receive in relation to breed. You should expect Friesian calves to average around 43kg on arrival. Never accept any Friesian calves under 35kg. All calves should have had colostrum.
Poukawa research calves
  • CHECK CALF WEIGHTS: When the truck arrives, be there to unload and weigh at least a couple of your lightest looking calves (any scales available e.g. bathroom scales if no others available). Ring your calf supplier if you’re not happy – particularly in the case of calves under 35kg.
  • REPLACE LOST FLUIDS: For calves that have travelled a long distance it is advisable to feed some form of inexpensive electrolyte on arrival (feeding milk straight away to stressed calves may cause scouring). Find out an approximate time of arrival and plan to be there. If they arrive late at night (this is normal!) it may be more practical to wait until early morning before feeding electrolyte, followed by an afternoon milk feed of 1 litre/200g. Calves may be tired and unfamiliar with the milk feeders, and you will need lots of patience. Extra help may be required for the first few feeds. All calves should be fed twice a day for the first two days (see milk feeding regime below) while they settle into their new environment.
  • CHECK ANIMAL HEALTH ON ARRIVAL: Look at the overall condition of the calves, then check for navel infection and slow drinkers while they are having their first feed. Calves with problems should be spray marked for treatment and rechecking. Put slow drinkers in a pen together for ease of management.
  • MILK FEEDING: All calves should be fed twice a day (early morning and late afternoon) for the first few days while they adjust to concentrated milk replacer and their new environment. After this initial period they can then go onto a once a day feeding system as set out below. It is recommended that calves be grouped by weight/frame size for milk feeding. Try to feed at the same time every day, set a routine and stick to it. Watch calves, especially early on when feeding small amounts, each calf needs to drink all its allocated milk. Group any slow feeders together.

    Suggested once a day feeding system – calves are fed a standard concentration of 200g-milk replacer/litre.

    Age of calf (days) Small <37kg Medium 37kg-43kg Large >43kg
    1-2 2 x 1 L 2 x 1 L 2 x 1 L
    3-5 2 x 1 L 1.5 L 2.0 L
    6-9 2 x 1 L 1.75 L 2.25 L
    10-12 1.5 L 2.0 L 2.5 L
    13-16 1.75 L 2.25 L 2.5 L
    17-20 2.0 L 2.0 L 2.5 L
    21-24 2.25 L 2.5 L 2.5 L
    25-35 2.5 L 2.5 L 2.5 L
    36-42 2.5 L 2.5 L Weaned
    43-49 2.5 L Weaned  
    Total milk
    replacer/calf (kg)
    21.8 19.8 16.9

    The number of days at each step is not strictly regimented so increases in volume can be delayed by a day or two if scouring is occurring. Each increase in milk volume should be maintained for 3 or 4 days depending on calf performance.

    Calves should be given a continuous supply of high protein pellets (ad-lib) from day one until they are consuming 1.5kg/calf/day (this should occur at week 5 or 6). Calves will not eat wet or stale pellets, nor will they consume pellets when fresh water is not provided. Check pellets and water regularly.

    Calves need to have clean fresh straw or hay available. Avoid feeding hay of high quality (e.g. lucerne/clover hay) as calves will eat larger quantities and consume less pellets. This might seem like a desirable outcome but the calves will be consuming less total energy and may actually be lighter at weaning.
  • WEANING: Ideally weaning should be based on calf weight and pellet intake. A typical weaning weight for Friesian calves is 63kg with calves consuming more than 1 kg of meal daily. Particularly heavy calves can be weaned off milk as early as 4 weeks of age.
  • POST WEANING: If calves are introduced to pasture too early they may not consume pellets and the early weaning system will not work. Pellets provide the nutritional bridge between milk feeding and a grass only diet. Calves should have access to good pasture from 5 or 6 weeks of age once calves are weaned off milk. Pellet feeding should be continued (at 1.5 kg/day) until week 10 whilst the calf’s rumen adjusts to a grass diet. A lower protein pellet can be fed when calves are on grass.

    Plan your post weaning feed well in advance and aim for 1800 kg DM/ha of high quality pasture. If pasture is short then a fall back option is top quality baleage (lucerne or similar) which can be used as a substitute for grass. Again, pellet feeding must continue together with the baleage.

    Always allow easy access back to shelter in case of cold weather. A calf will quickly lose body heat through wind chill hence the importance of good shelter and bedding. Calf covers can be beneficial for autumn reared calves, or those reared in colder climates.
Animal Health
  • NAVEL: By 4 days of age the navel area should be dry and healing cleanly. When infection in the navel occurs, the navel area will be very wet, enlarged, inflamed or have pus inside an enlarged area. Signs of discomfort from the calf may also be evident when gently squeezed. A calf with all of these symptoms is not acceptable. All navels should be checked on arrival by feeling the navel area while they are drinking. Have a good look at suspected infections. An infected navel requires immediate antibiotic treatment.
  • SORE LIMBS: Swollen knee joints can result from navel infection and require specific antibiotics to treat. The calf may be left with some permanent disability. Other causes of sore limbs may be arthritis or just bruising from bustle with other calves.
  • SLOW DRINKERS: Pen them together for management purposes. Use a spray marker to identify any calves causing concern.
  • SCOURS: Defined as liquid faeces as opposed to “loose” faeces. A clear sign of scours is a wet tail and a hollow tucked up abdomen. Signs of lethargy, slow to rise, slow drinking, ears drooping or restlessness can all be symptoms of a scouring calf. A quick check for any signs of abnormality, twice a day can help catch scours early. Calves need to be taken off milk and administered electrolytes immediately to replenish lost fluids and vitamins. Electrolytes need to be fed 3 times a day. Severe scours may also need bacteriological treatment (i.e. a pill). The goal is a quick recovery and a slow introduction back to milk, starting them back with 2-3 small feeds/day then a gradual increase in volume until they have caught up with others in the system. Calves will not grow or fight disease on electrolytes, hence the quicker they are feeding again, the better. If the calf refuses to drink then tube feed 3 times a day with electrolytes. There are numerous treatments and preventatives on the market for scours, including natural alternatives. Talk to people about their experiences and stick to a system that works for you.
  • “5 DAY BLUES”: Many rearers encounter scouring between 5 and 10 days which appears to be frequently caused by a protozoa called cryptosporidia. The recommendation is to take scouring calves off milk and feed electrolytes for a day.
  • MOUTH ULCERS: If a calf stops drinking or is slow to drink, it may have a sore tongue or gums or there may be a piece of straw lodged between its teeth causing discomfort. If there is an obstruction visible you can try and free it (beware, the molars of calves can deliver a nasty bite) or ring your vet for advice on treatment for mouth sores or ulcers.
  • BLOOD IN THE FAECES: Can be caused by a range of disorders and can be best diagnosed by sending a faecal sample for analysis. Isolate the calf as a precautionary measure and maintain fluids with electrolytes as required.
  • BREATHING DIFFICULTIES: May be caused by pneumonia and requires antibiotic treatment. Pneumonias can be exacerbated by enclosed housing leading to ammonia build up. Good shed ventilation (as opposed to draughts) and access back to good shelter when out on pasture can help prevent this problem.
  • HERNIAS: Hernias can develop at the navel entrance and can be mistaken for an infected navel. As with badly infected navels, these calves are also unacceptable.

Ensure you have a good animal health programme in place i.e. dehorning (you can hire professionals to do it), vaccinating and drenching. Talk to your vet about your needs.


Between batches of calves, the calf shed should be fully cleaned out and sprayed with a virucide. To prevent the build up of bugs while the calves are housed, disinfectant that will not harm the calves can be sprayed in the pens once a week for the first 3 weeks. An unoccupied clean pen where you can isolate any sick calves is needed. If you encounter a fly problem while the animals are housed a light spray with an insecticide such as ripcord on the surrounding framework will kill them. Ensure you wash milk feeders and associated gear with a disinfectant after every feed. Keep personal hygiene at a high standard, wash your hands and keep your children out of these areas for their own safety. Rotovirus, salmonella and cryptosporidia are all infectious and can be passed on to humans.


Calves respond well to human voice and touch, and when treated with a little compassion will respond well to this system. The greatest asset you can have is experience. Try a small number for the first season until you are confident in dealing with any problems that may arise. Gradually increase your numbers, don’t jump from 20 one season to 500 the next.

For further information, contact:

Ngahiwi Farms Ltd
Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Free Phone: 0800 CALFMILK (0800 225364)