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Maintaining a dairy calf for a long and productive life

Maintaining a dairy calf for a long and productive life


Want profitable, productive cattle? Dairy calf care is your first priority. 

The first few days and months of life are vital for the maintenance of dairy calf health. 

Supporting rumen and immunity development, balancing milk with dry feed, and prioritising wellness all contribute to a healthier cow that costs less to rear overall. 


Importance of feeding calves colostrum for a healthy, productive life

All dairy calf care and maintenance starts with colostrum. Without it, calves will struggle to grow into productive, healthy herd members. 

Colostrum is the thick milk that dairy cows produce immediately after calving. 

It contains vital nutrients, protein energy stores and, most importantly, immunoglobulins that provide immunity for calves before they develop their own antibody protection. 

Studies show that colostrum deficient cows have lower survival and slower growth rates, and a 2000 study showed that 40% of colostrum deficient calves died. 

To ensure calves get the immunity protection they need, colostrum must be given within the first 6-12 hours after being born. After the first 24 hours, they cannot absorb the colostrum in the same way, and it can make it difficult for them to develop properly over their lifetime. 

Calves will also need fresh colostrum or a high quality colostrum substitute for the first four days of being born. This will provide them immunity for the first month up to around six months while they mature. 


Feeding the young calf for a future productive life

Whether you are raising beef or dairy calves, the correct nutritional program is essential for dairy calf maintenance. 

Here’s how to feed a calf to help them become productive adult cattle. 

  • Use a calf milk replacer

To encourage early rumen development, you can feed pre-weaned calves a high quality milk replacement.

The rumen is underdeveloped in calves, and milk alone does not mature it, as it bypasses the system and goes straight to the abomasum. 

For faster growth and rumen development, you should feed them grain-based calf feed and plenty of water. Most calf feeds digest quickly, which means the calves will look for even more. 

Grass and milk will develop the rumen eventually, but helping it along with a calf milk replacer will optimise growth. 

Sharpes EarlyWean Calf Feed pellets can be introduced from four days and is ideal for twice a day whole milk feeding or as a milk replacement. 

  • Feed probiotics for a healthy gut

You may want to promote gut health in your calves by adding prebiotics or probiotics to their diet. 

Like all animals, cows rely on the microbiome of their digestive system to absorb nutrients and grow in the critical first few months of life. 

Probiotics for calves can help prevent harmful bacteria from growing in the gut, whereas prebiotics provide “food” for the existing good bacteria already present. 

Adding probiotics as a supplement may help improve digestion, increase nutrient uptake and build the calf’s immune system. 

  • Transition to solid foods as soon as possible 

The pre-weaning stage is getting calves ready to wean off milk. This means that their rumen needs to develop so that they can digest properly.

Introducing solid foods (like Sharpes Calf Pellets) can help them grow and mature faster. 

  • Weaning young calves

Before calves can digest properly, they will be on a primarily milk or milk replacement diet. 

Initially, they will need to consume about 8% of their birth weight in milk each day. You should be aiming for calves to grow approximately 900 grams per day for the first month of their life as a healthy weight marker. 

As their appetite grows and their rumen develops, you will move them onto solid feed and clean hay. 

Fully weaning calves will depend on their body condition, however most healthy calves will reach this stage at around seven to eight months. 


Good practices to follow for calf rearing 

Calf rearing is just as important as caring for your pregnant cows if you want to get the most out of them later in life. 

There are a few key practices for newborn calf care that will give them the best chance of developing: 

  • Give them around four litres of colostrum as soon as possible after birth, and in the four days following 
  • Feed at the same time every day to avoid stress (either once or twice per day depending on which feeding cycle you choose) 
  • Provide warmth and shelter with plenty of straw as bedding 
  • Make sure they always have access to clean, fresh water 
  • Change dry feed each day to avoid it going bad and attracting vermin 
  • De-worm them within 10-14 days of being born, and then every month for six months 
  • Scrub all feeding equipment with hot water and disinfectant so they don’t get sick
  • Provide a high starch dry feed to encourage rumen development

It is also important to do regular visual health checks like the one we have outlined in the next section. 


Monitor calf health and have regular health checks

Another important part of taking care of calves is to do health checks. Doing this regularly means you can spot any changes in looks or behaviour. 

There are a few key indicators for a healthy calf: 

  • Clear nose that is moist and cool 
  • Alert, responsive ears with no visible infection after tagging 
  • No navel infection at umbilical cord site (this is usually sprayed at birth) 
  • Eating and drinking without coercion 
  • Walking normally 
  • Skin bounces back if you lightly grab it (if it is slow, calf may be dehydrated) 
  • No visible mouth ulcers 
  • Shiny coat

Maintaining hygienic pens and feeding equipment will help keep calves healthy. 

This means all feeding equipment should be scrubbed and sterilised, ensuring bedding is changed regularly, separating any sick calves from the main group and disinfecting surfaces regularly. 



Taking care of your calves is really taking care of your future production margins. As soon as calves are born they are ready to develop into mature, productive members of your herd.

Sharpes dairy feed takes care of your herd from calf to cattle. Our high quality, New Zealand owned calf feed has everything your growing calves need!


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