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How to feed a Calf? A starter guide

How to feed a Calf? A starter guide


Feeding calves right is one of the most important things you can do for a productive herd. 

The first few months of a dairy cow’s life will determine their future health and production for years to come. Your main focus with calf feed is to ensure they reach growth milestones, develop their rumen and build a strong immune system. 

This calf feeding guide will cover what you should be feeding calves and when, help you decide whether to feed once or twice per day, and some tips for successful, healthy calf rearing


What to feed a calf during the pre-weaning stage?

The pre-weaning stage is the first seven to eight months of a calf’s life. 

Calf feed during this time is crucial for growth and healthy, productive life as they mature into the herd. 

There are four main things to feed a calf during this pre-weaning stage to ensure healthy development and high production later in life. 

  • Colostrum 

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. 

All calves must be fed colostrum as soon as possible within the first 6-12 hours of life. They will also need fresh colostrum or a high quality colostrum substitute for the first four days of life. This will provide them immunity for the first month up to around six months, while they mature. 

  • Calf milk replacer

To help encourage early rumen development, it is good to get pre-weaned calves on a calf milk replacer. 

Milk alone does not develop the rumen, as it bypasses it in the calf’s system. For faster growth and rumen development, you should be feeding them a 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. The best feed for calves is a combination of both. 

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. 

  • Water 

Calves should always have access to plenty of clean, fresh water. Water is an essential part of calf nutrition and development, and is critical for dairy cow nutrition management throughout their life.

Calves won’t get enough water from milk, so make sure they are drinking plenty to promote weight gain and food intake. 

  • Prebiotics and probiotics 

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. 

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

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

These supplements can be added in the first three weeks of their life, as well as in times of cold or heat stress, or stress from moving pens, for example. 


Calf feeding system options

Calf feeding systems are either once or twice per day. There are pros and cons to both, and usually it comes down to what fits in with the rest of the farm schedule. 

Regardless of which calf feeding option you choose, feeding them at the same time each day will minimise stress for them. 

  • Once a day calf feeding system

Feeding calves once a day reduces the amount of milk and feed you will need. It can also reduce labour costs as less time is spent on organising feeding. 

However, once a day feeding can cause stress to the calves as twice per day is more natural. It can also increase the amount of time calves need to be housed (around five-seven weeks), as well as use more dry feed compared with twice-per-day feeding. 

If you want to feed once per day without running over budget, Sharpes Hi Protein Calf Pellets could be a good option. This calf feed has been developed to enable calf rearers to reduce milk replacer volumes and feed milk once per day.

  • Twice a day calf feeding system

A twice-per-day calf feeding system uses more milk but less dry feed. It is more labour intensive than once-per-day feeds, but is less stressful for the calves and has lower capital costs as they are only housed for two weeks. 

The system you choose is entirely up to you and your allocation of labour, housing and feed budget. 


Good practices for calf rearing

The calving stage is one of the most important factors in how healthy and productive your herd will be in the future. 

We’ve put together a quick dairy calf maintenance guide to remember for you next calving season.

Quick tips for calf rearing 

  • Make sure they have plenty of water – they won’t get enough from milk alone and it helps increase food intake 
  • Encourage early rumen development by providing high quality calf feed and water alongside their milk intake  
  • Give around four-six litres of high quality colostrum as soon as possible after birth. After the first 24 hours, they won’t absorb enough of the antibodies and their immunity will underperform throughout their life 
  • Provide warmth and shelter for calves separated from their mothers 
  • Make sure there is plenty of dry hay in pens, not bare dirt, mud or concrete
  • Clean feeding equipment in between feeds 
  • Feed calves at the same time each day to avoid over-stressing them 
  • Minimise movement between pens to reduce the chance of any infections spreading 
  • Put out fresh hard feed daily to avoid mould forming – calves won’t eat feed that is going off
  • Hay can also help develop the rumen at this stage of growth and can be a good additional feed supplement in small doses

Calf care takes diligence, but it is worth the investment in your herd overall!


Get the best nutrition for your calves, rely on Sharpes Farm Feeds

Feeding calves the right food at the right time ensures productive cattle as they mature. Sharpes Calf Feed gives pre-weaning calves the best start, with all the nutrients they need to grow. Whether they are in their first two weeks or ready to be weaned, Sharpes New Zealand owned calf feed has got you covered.


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