"Successful Calf Raising: A Manual"
Ron Tolbert, Ph. D.

Raising calves is a profession, a career, an art. The progression of a newborn calf to a high-producing dairy cow entails more than most dairy product consumers realize. It involves knowledge, skill, long hours, hard work, a large capital investment and, truthfully, a little luck. Knowing who to contact when you do not have an answer is another important aspect of successfully raising calves.

This manual is designed as a reference for the more experienced calf producer and dairy farmer. It should be additionally informative to the less-experienced person. It covers feeding, management and health practices from prior to the calf's birth to her own calving. Much of the information may be applied to raising bull calves for the feedlot.

There is no way of knowing how many calves are lost each year due to less-than-optimum feeding and management. A death loss of greater than 7% from birth to freshening is considered excessive.

Death loss goals should be less than 5% from birth to weaning and less than 2% from weaning to freshening. Another goal is to have a heifer freshen at 24 months of age. Through proper feeding, management and health practices, these goals can be attained. The annual economic loss of higher-than-necessary death losses and older-than-necessary heifers at calving, must be staggering.

This manual is by no way inclusive and, therefore, does not guarantee success. A calf producer's management abilities and practices are his or her greatest assets. Dairy Manufacturers, Inc.'s intent is to assist the calf producer and dairy farmer with the information herein. If in question about any facet of calf raising, consult a professional. A qualified nutritionist offers feeding and management advice; a veterinarian, medical advice.

The goal of raising dairy heifer calves is to produce an animal that is suitable as a replacement at the dairy. The typical dairy, for a number of reasons, culls 25-35% of the milking herd each year. This indicates that a large number of replacement heifers are needed. The ideal replacement heifer

  • weighs 1300 pounds or more at freshening without being fat
  • is in good health
  • will be 24 months of age at calving
  • is genetically and physically a more desirable animal than the one she is replacing.

The genetics of this heifer determine what her potential is. How she is raised, fed and managed determine what she will do. When a heifer freshens, someone has at least a two-year investment in her with no return on that investment to that time. Her longevity in the milking herd and her milking ability will determine whether that investment is returned along with a reasonable profit. Longevity and milking ability are highly related to how she was raised. There are several phases in raising dairy calves.

Phase 1: Pre-Calving

Extra attention to the feeding and management of the dry cow can be extremely important to the health and well being of the newborn calf. Proper feeding and management of the dry cow will also yield additional pounds of milk during her lactation and fewer post-calving complications.

Feeding the Dry Cow. The dry cow's nutrient requirements are small compared to those of the heavily lactating cow. Her requirements are, nonetheless, very specific and a well-balanced diet is essential. When the cow dries off, her body condition should be what you would like it to be when she calves. It is generally agreed that a body condition score of 3.0-3.5 is desirable. The type and quality of forage available will determine the amount of grain she will require. She should be fed so that her weight gain during the dry period is limited to approximately 150 pounds. Two weeks prior to calving she should be fed long-stemmed forages and additional grain. This aids in reducing the likelihood of post-calving digestive upsets. Her ration should be balanced for protein, energy, vitamins and minerals.

Managing the Dry Cow. A few days prior to calving, the cow should be placed in a clean, dry and draft-free environment. This may be a maternity stall or an appropriate pasture that is convenient for close and frequent observation. If a stall is used, it should contain clean fresh bedding. If disease has been prevalent, the stall should be disinfected and allowed to dry thoroughly before bedding is placed in it. Calf mortality and moisture content of the bedding are highly related. Try to be with the cow at the time of calving. Calving assistance often prevents birthing fatalities of healthy calves.

Phase 2: Birth to Weaning

Make sure that the calf's throat and nasal passages are clear. If they are not, manually clear them with your fingers. The cow will usually lick the calf within a few minutes after birth. If she does not, dry calf with towels to prevent chilling. A cold calf is more susceptible to disease.

Disinfect the Naval. The importance of disinfecting the naval as soon after birth cannot be over emphasized. Disinfection with a tincture of iodine solution will help prevent the invasion of disease organisms into the calf's body. (See Table 1 below.) Check the naval for swelling and infection for the first few days. If you detect infection, follow antibiotic therapy.

Table 1: Effect of Disinfecting vs. not Disinfecting the Naval on Calf Mortality and Incidence of Scours and Pneumonia

Treatment No. of Calves % Mortality %Treated for Scours %Treated for Pneumonia
Disinfected naval 269 7.1 30.1 5.2
Not disinfected naval 132 18.1 22 18.9

Source: "Calf Survival Study." U. of Wisconsin Extension Bulletin. J.R. Anderson, A.N. Bringe, A. Hardie

Colostrum. If possible, see that the calf receives colostrum within 15 minutes after birth. This is important due to the calf's rapidly declining ability to absorb the immunoglobulins contained in the colostrum. Twelve hours after birth, the calf's ability to absorb these immunoglobulins is half of what it was at birth. The high levels of immunoglobulins contained in colostrum are essential for the calf to develop adequate defenses against disease organisms. Colostrum also contains higher nutrient levels than whole milk. (See Table 2 below.)

Table 2: Composition of Colostrum vs. Whole Milk

Component % in Colostrum % in Whole Milk
Protein 14 12.9
Fat 6.7 3.5
Solids not fat 16.7 8.8
Lactose 2.7 5
Calcium 0.26 0.13
Phosphorous 0.24 0.09
Vitamin A, IU/qt. 9000 850

Source: University of Minnesota Extension Bulletin 575

Colostrum should be taken from all four quarters and fed as a mixture. Colostrum from mature cows is preferable to that from heifers because mature-cow colostrum contains higher levels of immunoglobulins. Colostrum should be fed as follows:

Table 3: Colostrum Feeding Guide

Calf Age Amounts of Colostrum to Feed
Birth-4 hours 3-4 lbs.*
5-16 hours 8-9 lbs. (in divided feedings)
Days 2 and 3 6-8 lbs. (in divided feedings)
Days 4 and 5 6-8 lbs. (in divided feedings, a 50/50 mixture of colostrum and high-quality milk replacer)

*a pint of milk weighs 1.08 lbs.

Feeding Milk Replacer. Milk replacers go into solution better if they are added to warm water (105-110 degrees F). Place the warm water into the mixing container and add the milk replacer to the water. Mix with a wire whip. Recommended milk replacer feeding rates are as listed:

Table 4: Milk Replacer Feeding Guide

Age of Calf Amount of Water (per feeding) Amount of Milk Replacer (per feeding) Number of Feedings/Day
4-7 days 3 lbs. (pints) .35 lbs. 2
8-21 days 4 lbs. (pints) .50 lbs. 2
22+ days 5 lbs. (pints) 1.00 lbs. 1
22+ days 6 lbs. (pints) 1.00 lbs. 1

Milk replacers are manufactured from a variety of ingredients and vary widely in their nutrient concentrations. Table 5 below lists milk replacer specifications and the National Research Council's (NRC) minimum recommendations. This table may be helpful when purchasing milk replacer.

Table 5: Milk Replacer Specifications

Nutrient Milk Replacer Recommendation Minimum NRC Recommendation
Crude Protein 20% min. 22
Fat 20% min. (premium) 10-15 min. (all-purpose)
Crude Fiber .5% max.
Calcium .81% .7
Phosphorus .71% .6
Sodium .66% (premium) .1-.29 (all-purpose)
Chorine .29% .2
Magnesium .12% .07
Cobalt, ppm 1.2 .1
Copper, ppm 13.2 10
Iodine, ppm 2.4 .25
Iron, ppm 130 100
Zinc, ppm 62 40
Selenium, ppm 66 .3
Vitamin A 30,000 IU/lb. 720
Vitamin D 10,000 IU/lb. 270
Vitamin E 500 IU/lb. 300
Vitamin B-12 .2 mg/lb. .032
Niacin 4.9 mg/lb. 2.6
Riboflavin 8.2 mg/lb. 2.95
Thiamin 2.9 mg/lb. 2.95
Choline 398 mg/lb. 260
Salt 1% .25

Starter Feeds. Either coarse-textured feeds or small pellets may be fed as a starter feed to calves. If you choose a textured-type feed, it should contain a minimum of 16-18% crude protein. It should contain rolled grains, a supplement pellet, and molasses. Oats and corn are the preferred grains. The supplement pellet should be a small-diameter pellet and should not contain any cotton products.

If you choose a pelleted feed, it should also be a minimum of 16-18% crude protein and contain no cotton products. It should contain dry milk replacer or dry milk products. Like the supplement pellet, it should be a small-diameter pellet.

Begin feeding starter feeds at one week of age. Start by feeding one milk replacer cup full of feed. Do not feed free choice. As the calf begins to eat more feed, adjust the amount to what she will clean up between milk replacer feedings. If high-quality chopped hay is available, it may be fed at seven days of age. Begin by placing approximately 1/2 cup in the feed bucket prior to feeding milk replacer. Gradually increase as the calf eats more.

Health Practices. Vaccinate and medicate as follows, according to your veterinarian's advice:

  • Disinfect naval with tincture of iodine.
  • If iron and vitamin injections are needed for newborn calves,use iron dextrin and vitamin ADE at their labels' recommended rate.
  • Vaccinate for contagious pneumonia with a wide range pasturella as they are placed in the crates.
  • Vaccinate newborn calves for Clostridium perfingens, if needed.
  • Vaccinate for IBR/PI-3 at 4-6 weeks of age.
  • Vaccinate for brucellosis at 3-4 months of age. Follow state regulations.
  • Vaccinate for leptospirosis at 4-5 months of age if it is a problem in your area.

Scours. Scours is one of the leading causes of calf illness and death. There are a number of dietary, mechanical and infectious causes involved. The mechanical-type scour is caused by overfeeding milk replacer or colostrum. The solution to this type of scours is to decrease the amounts that are being fed. Always follow milk replacer feeding directions carefully. If whole milk is being fed, feed at the rate of 8% of the calf's body weight. The dietary type of scours is caused by a lack of colostrum and therefore poor antibody transfer. Infectious scours is caused by a number of different bacteria and viruses.

Escherichia coliform (E. coli) scours is probably the most common type of bacterial scours. Its severity is determined by the amount of stress to which the calf has been exposed and by the amount and timing of colostrum consumption. There are three types of E. coli scours. The enteric (pertaining to the small intestine) type is the most common. These calves will usually be weak and dehydrated with severe diarrhea. Their temperature may be elevated in the early stages of infection and then return to normal. The septicemic (pathogenic organisms or their toxins in the bloodstream) type of E. coli infection causes a general infection. Calves that were deprived of colostrum and are infected with this type of infection usually die. The enterotoxemic (presence of toxins in the blood produced by organisms in the intestine) form of E. coli infection is often acute and fatal. These calves are depressed, recumbent and have subnormal temperatures.

Salmonella scours is usually associated with calves that were purchased through sales. Outbreaks of this type can cause high death losses. Clostridia scours s not usually common but outbreaks are normally associated with severe mortality rate. Clostridium perfringens type C causes hemorragic enterotoxemia (a toxin in the small intestine which causes bleeding). Other infective agents that can cause scours are the reoviruses, adrenoviruses, and the coronaviruses. Scours caused by coronaviruses usually do not occur until the calf is over 10 days old

Scours Control. Follow these guidelines to control scours:

  • Reduce the amount of milk or milk replacer mix by half.
  • Contact your veterinarian.
  • Start antibiotic medication at the first sign of scouring in an attempt to prevent it from spreading. The antibiotic recommended by your veterinarian to be the most specific for the particular organism involved should be used.
  • If the calf is over three days of age, feed an electrolyte according to the manufacturer's recommendations.
  • Identify the calf so that all the people involved are aware of the problem and can therefore care for her accordingly.
  • Prevent all the stresses possible.

Management Practices. Follow these guidelines for successful calf production:

  • Identify calves at birth. Use ear tags or some other acceptable identification method so that records may be accurately kept of calf's breeding, health, etc.
  • Observe calves closely a minimum of twice daily.
  • Keep calves in separate crates, stalls or hutches for 6-8 weeks.
  • Keep drinking pails, automatic waterers, and feed pails 20 inches off the floor.
  • Keep stalls and pens draft-free and avoid sudden temperature changes.
  • Always use clean pails and bottles.
  • Always provide clean, fresh water.
  • Observe calves closely for external and internal parasites.
  • Castrate male calves before they are 30 days of age.
  • Dehorn and remove supernumerary teats before two months of age.

Phase 3: Weaning to Six Months of Age

The next stage in the development of the replacement heifer is her growing phase. This period of time extends from weaning until she is approximately six months old. At the end of this stage, the larger-breed calves, holstein and brown swiss, should weigh at least 400 pounds. The smaller breeds, such as jersey, should weigh 275-300 pounds. These weight goals need to be met if the calf is to achieve her proper breeding weight at 15 months of age.

Weaning and Feeding. At 6-8 weeks of age the calf should be consuming approximately two pounds of calf starter per day and preferably, some high-quality chopped hay. By this time she is consuming only one pound of milk replacer in five pounds of water. Once the calves are out of the crates, allow them to consume all of the feed that they will, up to 4-6 pounds of starter or grower feed per day. The proper nutritional content of this feed will depend upon the quality and availability of the forages to which they have access. Appendix Table 1 lists recommended nutrient requirements.

One of the major factors determining grain consumption of calves this age is texture. Coarse ground or rolled grains appear to be preferred over finely ground or pelleted feeds. Consumption of grain, particularly during the first couple of weeks of this stage, is of particular importance.

Management Practices. Calves are not eating large quantities of forage and are not mature enough to obtain large amounts of nutrients from them. For these reasons certain management practices should be followed which will allow the calf a better opportunity to consume her grain and forages:

  • Always group calves in groups of similar age and size. This will help to eliminate competition for feed from older more aggressive cattle. This practice should also aid in reducing the spread of infectious disorders from the older heifers to the younger, more susceptible calves.
  • Groups of five calves is suggested. Smaller groups are always preferable to larger groups. Again, these groups help to eliminate competition and aid in disease control. Smaller groups are easier to observe and easier to handle if one needs special attention.
  • There should be enough feed bunk space to allow all calves to eat at the same time.
  • Only high-quality, fresh forages should be fed. Forages should be fed frequently, especially silages.
  • Never feed leftover hay or grain from another group of cows or calves.
  • Feed grains and forages that are nutritionally balanced for protein, energy, vitamins and minerals. This will ensure thrifty and economical growth.
  • Never overfeed.

Respiratory Diseases. Respiratory diseases are probably the primary cause of recurring health problems in the weaned calf. They seem to occur most frequently from 14-90 days of age. Some literature indicates that respiratory infections are more frequent if calves are weaned under the age of 50 days old. Respiratory diseases are more commonly referred to as pneumonia, but are caused by a number of pathogenic organisms.

According to Sheldon, Pasteurella multocida is probably the primary and most recurring pathogen responsible for respiratory infections in the 40-120-day-old calf. It is more common than P. hemolytica. He also states that weather, crowding and stress are factors in its increased transmission. In his paper, Sheldon also lists other bacteria and viruses that are responsible for respiratory infections.

Signs of respiratory distress include

  • rapid and difficult breathing with evident movement of the ribs and stomach
  • coughing
  • runny nose
  • off feed
  • fever

At the first sign of any of these symptoms, contact your veterinarian to confirm your suspicions and to start the calves on appropriate antibiotic therapy. Early treatment is the most effective treatment.

Phase 4: Six to Fifteen Months (Breeding)

The goal at the end of this stage is to have a heifer that is of the desired size (weight and maturity) to breed. A heifer's size rather than her actual age determines her age at puberty, age at breeding, and ease of calving. Research has demonstrated and experience has proven that heifers can calve at 24 months of age and be as productive as those that calve at older ages. Because they calve 2-5 months sooner, they have less money invested in them. Large-breed heifers should weigh approximately 850 pounds at 15 months of age and be approximately 50 inches tall at the withers. Small-breed heifers should weigh approximately 500 pounds. Heifers should not be permitted to become fat as this predisposes them to a number of problems.

Feeding and Management. Again, heifers should be grouped by size and age to prevent competition for feed. Smaller groups (10-15 head) are preferable because they are easier to observe, control, and handle if any special attention is required.

These heifers should be fed 3-4 pounds of a grain mix per day. The nutrient profile of this feed will depend upon the quality and availability of the forages the heifer is fed. The ration should be balanced for protein, energy, vitamins and minerals. Appendix Table 1 lists recommended nutrient requirements. The forage-to-grain ratio is important in all of the growing phases. If the right amount of grain is fed, the heifer should consume the proper amount of forage to keep her forage-to-grain ratio at the right level. (See Appendix Table 2.)

Phase 5: Breeding to Near-Calving

If heifers have been properly fed and managed up to the time of breeding, feeding grain should not be necessary; good-quality hay will contain adequate protein and energy. If poor or average-quality hay is fed, they will require 2-3 pounds of grain. Again, the ration should be balanced for protein, energy, vitamins, and minerals. Free-choice minerals and salt will need to be available. Be careful not to overfeed. Excessive fattening may reduce the heifer's longevity and producing ability and predispose her to a variety of metabolic disorders. The large-breed heifer should be gaining approximately 1.5-1.7 pounds per day. Gaining at this rate should allow her to be of the proper size to calve at 24 months of age.

Phase 6: Near Calving

Sixty days prior to calving, the heifer should be fed approximately 4 pounds of grain. It should be balanced for protein, energy, vitamins, and minerals. Thirty days prior to calving, she should be switched over to the milking herd's ration. Gradually increase the amount of feed until it reaches the dry cow lead feeding recommendations.

Heifers that are fed and managed properly throughout their various maturing phases are capable of calving at 24 months of age. If everything has gone according to schedule, these heifers will have a minimum of calving difficulties and will have the opportunity to meet their genetic potential. With the right genetic potential, these animals should have the ability to out-perform the animals they are replacing.

Literature Cited

Nutrient Requirements of Dairy Cattle. National Research Council. Sixth Revised Edition.1988.

Sheldon, J.J. Raising Dairy Calves for Maximum Feedlot Performance: Medical and Management Considerations.

Sudweeks, E.M. Feeding and Managing Dairy Calves and Heifers.

Appendix Table 1: Nutrient Requirements of Dairy Calves

Nutrient 3-6 Months 6-12 Months Greater than 12 Months
Crude Protein 16% 14% 12%
Fat 3% 3% 3%
Crude Fiber 13% 15% 15%
A.D.F. 16% 19% 19%
N.D.F. 23% 25% 25%
NEm .77 Mcal/lb. .72 .63
NEg .49 Mcal./lb. .44 .37
T.DN 69% 66% 61%
Calcium .52% .41% .29%
Phosphorus .31% .30% .23%
Sodium .10% .10% .10%
Choride .20% .20% .20%
Manganese, ppm 40 40 40
Cobalt, ppm .1 .1 .1
Copper, ppm 10 10 10
Iodine, ppm .25 .25 .25
Iron, ppm 50 50 50
Zinc, ppm 40 40 40
Selenium, ppm .3 .3 .3
Vitamin A 1,000 IU/lb. 1,000 1,000
Vitamin D 140 IU/lb. 140 140
Vitamin E 11 IU/lb. 11 11
Potassium .65% .65% .65%
Sulfur .16% .16% .16%

Source: Nutrient Requirements of Dairy Cattle, National Research Council, Sixth Revised Edition. 1998

Appendix Table 2: Age, Weight, Dry-Matter Intake and Forage-to-Grain Ratios Required for Adequate Growth in Large-Breed Dairy Heifers

Age (Months) Body Weight (Pounds) Dry-Matter Intake Forage:Grain Ratio* Crude Protein (%)
0-Weaning** 130 1-2 0:100 15-18
Weaning-2 160 4-5 25:75 15
3 220 6-7 50:50 14
6 400 10-11 67:33 12
9 550 14-16 75:25 12
12 720 16-18 75:25 12
15 875 18-20 100:0 12
18 1040 20-22 100:0 12
21 1200 18-22 100:0 12
24*** 1360 18-20 80:20 12

*Ration may vary due to forage quality.

**Does not include milk replacer or milk.

***Expected calving at 24 months of age.

Source: Sudweeks, E.M., Feeding and Managing Dairy Calves and Heifers


I wish to thank those individuals whose works I have cited in this manual. A special thanks goes to E. Max Sudweeks, Ph.D., Extension Dairy Specialist, Texas Agricultural Extension Service, Overton, Texas . Much of the information, tables and charts contained herein are from his paper "Feeding and Managing Dairy Calves and Heifers."