Establishing and following a management system is critical for young calves

Raising bottle calves in the dairy industry is the norm, but most beef cattle producers depend on their cows to raise calves. However, orphaned or rejected calves are an unfortunate part of the industry.

The health of the calves must be top priority. Proper management techniques will help producers keep bottle calves in good shape.

Colostrum Intake

The most crucial step in raising healthy calves starts at the very beginning, with colostrum. Colostrum is the milk that is produced for a few days after birth and is characterized by high protein and antibody content – a proper amount of colostrum ensures the critical development of a newborn’s immune system. Colostrum is typically yellow in color and is thicker than “regular” milk. A newborn calf needs this ideally within hours after birth, said Donna Amaral-Phillips, Extension Professor and Extension Dairy and Nutrition Specialist with the University of Kentucky. If the calf has not received colostrum within 24 hours, it most likely will not survive.

Colostrum develops the calf’s immune system and starts aiding the GI tract development, among many other things.

Amaral-Phillips suggested producers to keep a bag of freeze-dried colostrum replacer on hand in case of emergencies.

Feeding and Watering

Calves should be receiving six quarts of milk per day. This amount is a little more than used to be recommended, Amaral-Phillips explained, but the higher amount of milk produces healthier calves at weaning time. After three days, calves should be provided with fresh water and a commercial calf starter grain along with their milk. To avoid unnecessary waste, provide a very small amount of grain and remember that a little bit goes a long way with young calves. The grain and water will aid in good rumen development.

“Calves are ready to be weaned when they are eating 2 pounds of grain for 3 days in a row,” Amaral-Phillips said.

Weaning should be done gradually by cutting the amount of milk in half for about a week and then not providing milk altogether. Producers should hold off on offering hay to dairy calves until they are eating 4 to 5 pounds of grain per day.

“This leads to better rumen development,” Amaral-Phillips said.


Calves can be housed individually or in groups. There are different management aspects to each method, said Reagan Bluel, Extension Dairy Specialist with the University of Missouri.

Group housing, while convenient from a space saving angle, can have some calf health challenges arise from issues like cross suckling. Calves naturally have a desire to suckle, and in group housing they can create infections from suckling on each other’s ears, navels and mammary glands. Bluel suggested giving the calves something appropriate to suckle on, like leaving the milk bar or other nipple system available.

In individual housing, more housing units are required and therefore make chore time a bit more spread out, but there are no cross suckling issues and “it reduces mammary gland damage,” said Reagan. Calves kept in individual housing tend to suffer fewer respiratory issues as well.

Older Orphaned Calves

If they are a couple months old when they lose their mothers, calves can probably do all right even without milk, if they are provided with a good quality hay and concentrate like grain or calf pellets. Producers can also put the orphaned calf with an older animal in a small pen for security, and give them some good quality feed. Once the calf learns to eat it by following the other animal’s example, producers could then utilize a creep situation.

If the orphaned calf is able to “rob” from other cows, some producers will leave the calf in the herd. That calf, however, will tend to be smaller at weaning time.


Each operation is different, so specific vaccination needs will vary.

“Have an annual visit with your vet for calf vaccination protocol,” Bluel advised.

She also recommended producers keep detailed records that include calf mortality, so that vaccination protocols can be established accordingly to keep that rate low.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here