Taking Care of Calves

If you have a dairy cow (or cows), chances are you have more milk than you know what to do with. If this is the case, you might consider bottle feeding calves. Before you go get that first calf, though, here is a list of things you want to consider.
1. Bull or Heifer?

First off, you need to decide if you want a bull or a heifer. To make the choice, you can ask yourself this question: “what do you want to do with the calf?” If you’re answer is to raise it for meat, you’d probably want to buy a bull (and subsequently steer it). If you want to breed and raise a herd, you’d probably want a heifer. Keep in mind that heifers are oftentimes much more expensive than bulls, depending on the breed. If you decide to get a bull to raise for meat, you can see if the owner will band him for you if you don’t feel comfortable doing so when you get home.

2. What breed?

Dairy breeds, such as Holsteins and Jerseys, are often much less expensive than beef breeds such as Angus’ and Black Baldy’s. However, if you want to raise your calf for meat, many people will tell you to go with a beef breed. This will require some research on your part on the different breeds and what they are used for. Try asking around and/or going off by what is available in your area.

Once you have picked your calf, look at these things:

1. Did the calf get colostrum?

Colostrum is the first milk that the cow will produce after birth of her calf. Since calves are born with very little immunity to disease, ingesting the colostrum is vital to helping them fight off whatever may come. The calf needs as much colostrum as it can get within the first 24 hours of life. The longer it takes to get colostrum, the less it will be able to absorb. This is a good resource that helps explain how you should store and feed colostrum.

2. Check their behind.

Scours (diarrhea) in calves is very common. Chances are, your calf will probably have it sometime during their growing stage. However, I would recommend not getting a calf with scours to begin with. If you can’t actually stand and watch them poop, check their behind. A common sign would be poop residue on their tail/back legs.

3. Do they act hungry?

Some of the best advice I ever got was “a hungry calf is a healthy calf”. If you see a calf that doesn’t want to get up (acts weak) and doesn’t act hungry, he/she may be getting sick. Before you check this, though, make sure they haven’t eaten recently! Calves sleep A LOT in their first weeks of life (just like babies!), so you could misinterpret them being weak/not hungry for being full and sleepy.

4. Facilities.

There are lots of ways you can house a calf. One of the most popular ways on large dairies are huts with a run in so they can go from the shade to the sun. We do anywhere from 1 to 10 calves at a time and they are all together in a pen that’s fairly big. They have a tree to keep them shaded and a run in for storms/rain. They love to run and bounce along with each other.

If you plan on keeping the calf for meat, the facilities that work for a small calf will not work for an older cow. You will want to make sure you have a big enough field for your calf to go into once he is weaned.

5. Supplies
As for supplies, you will need a bottle. If you are doing more than one, you may consider a Milk Bar. You will also need a place to store your milk or formula, a sink to wash your bottles in, whatever detergent you want to use to clean the bottles (we use bleach and/or Dawn) and a place for your bottles and nipples to be stored. (note: If you use bleach, make sure you rinse off the bottles/nipples/milk bar very well so none is left on that the calves can ingest)

6. Feeding
We usually feed our calves 2 qts (of raw milk) in the morning and 2 qts at night (1 gallon/day). However, we are currently trying a new method where we split the feeding into 3 times a day. We will let you know how it works out for us. When feeding milk replacer, you will want to follow the directions on the bag.

Once your done feeding them, you will want to clean out the bottles well (you’ll want a bottle brush) to make sure that no mold or other milk scum/residue stay in the bottle. This can lead the calf to get sick.

Always make sure you have fresh water available for them! They might not start drinking it right away, but you want it to be there for them when they decide to drink. As for grain and hay, people have their different methods of when to start calves on it. We start offering free choice hay and grain at about 2 weeks old. We feed them a good quality Coastal hay and feed that we get from our local mill that is meant for calves.

7. Treatments
If your calf does experience scours or other sickness, you want to make sure you have medicines on hand. Every second counts when you’re dealing with them and you have a higher chance to help them the faster you catch and treat. We use Resorb Scour Treatment, which works well for calves that are experiencing dehydration due to scours. What works well for us might not work well for you, so always consult a licensed professional (veterinarian) if you have questions on what kind of medicines to use.

There you have it- the basics of taking care of calves. We plan on doing some videos on bottle feeding and some more informative blogs covering specific topics on calf rearing in the coming weeks.

Don’t forget to check out One Ash Farm and Dairy Supply Company for all of your calf feeding needs.

3 thoughts on “Taking Care of Calves

  1. Great post! I may have missed it, but should you mention equipment for tubing just in case a calf gets too sick and weak to suck? I love to see people putting informative posts out there to help others! One of my favorite things to do. :) It takes a lot of time to compose something like this (most people have no idea!), but it's so great to have so much good advice in one place to help someone who needs it. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, I remember when we first got a bottle calf and didn't know what to do with him! It can be very scary being responsible for a baby calf for the first time, I think this post would have been very helpful :)

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