How can you best take care of your calves?

How you bring up your calf from birth to weaning stage will determine the quality of cow that you get. Care should be taken to promote growth, thus reducing chances of loss from death and disease while maintaining the health of the calf.

However, raising calves for many dairy farmers may not be your usual cup of tea. Like newborn babies some calves are born big, others small, some eat well while others are poor eaters.

Ideally calves should add at least 400-500gms in weight per day. So how can you best take care of your calves? We talked to a farmer in Eldoret about how he rears his calves and this is what he had to say. As soon as your calf is born, ensure that it is breathing.

Should breathing not commence, assist by removing mucus from nostrils and if breathing does not start hold calf by hind legs upside down and swing several times. Disinfect the umbilical cord using disinfectant (iodine or copper sulphate solution).

Strive to rear your calves in a profitable way while still giving them the required care. Do you want to be a breeder, a milk producer or a beef producer.

If your key goal is to sell milk, then your feeding programme should take that into consideration and leave some milk for sale and if breeding is your preference, then the programme should concentrate on faster growth rate etc.

One of the factors that must be considered while designing practical feeding systems in a bid to meet the nutrient requirements of dairy calves, is the nutritional and digestive physiology and effort should be directed at encouraging rumen development.

The following phases can help a farmer better understand his calf and consequently adopt a feeding programme that suits and works for both calf and farmer.

Colostrum phase: Colostrum is the first milk produced by a cow after giving birth that has high nutritive value with antibodies that gives the calf immunity against diseases. Colostrum is important and must be given to the calf immediately after birth, at a temperature of 39°c (body temperature) and never when it’s cold.

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You should ensure your calf drinks a minimum of 4-6 litres or at least 10% of the calf weight, within the first 6 -12 hours after birth. Try to feed the colostrum to the calf every 2 hours in order to maximize ingestion. This is because colostrum contains antibodies and gives the calf immunity against diseases for a period ranging from 1-3 months.

Absorption of these antibodiesin the calf’s body, is highest within the first 6-12 hours after birth but very low after 24 hours. As we said earlier calves are different. While some calves will drink about 2-3 liters at a go, others may not.

If you notice that your calf is a poor feeder try to feed it in little bits until it drinks the minimum amount required. If the colostrum milked is not drank fully by the calf it should be kept refrigerated in the short term and should be frozen for long term storage.

This is because bacteria in colostrum increases by double, for every hour its left at room temperature.Colostrum should never be thrown away and the calf should be given as much of it as it can consume for the next 3 days after birth.

Artificial colostrum does not contain immunoglobins which is what usually confer immunity to calf hence should only be given as a last resort. Milk or Colostrum from foster mother or cow is a better alternative.

There are two main ways of feeding colostrum:

  1. By milking and feeding the calf using a bucket
  2. The calf can be left to nurse from the mother Feeding colostrum using a bucket is good because it is easy to monitor and measure the amount of colostrum that the young calf has taken during the critical 6 -12 hours unlike when the calf nurses from the mother.
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Milk phase (3rd day -30 days) Just like infants, calves require milk (or liquid only) in their diet until their digestive system matures and they can   digest more complex feeds.

Whereas the digestive system of the calf develops relatively quickly, the abomasum (fourth stomach), still plays the most significant role in digestion for at least the first three weeks of life.

Generally a calf should drink 6 liters of milk per day during the milk phase if possible.

A safe way to measure the minimum amount of milk needed for your calf is to ensure it consumes about 10- 12% of its body weight within the first six hours so if your calf is 40kg your calf should drink at least 4 liters and you can increase the amount as its body weight increases.

Introduce water, pellets and hay in the first week after birth so that your calf will interact and get accustomed to them. Milk replacers.

For calves that are not nursing adequately, you can switch to milk replacer after 24-48 hours. Always choose a milk replacer that is specifically formulated for calves. Milk replacer provides the optimal blend of energy (carbohydrates and fat), protein, vitamins and minerals for healthy calf development. Calves on milk replacer should be best fed by pail or bottle twice a day at the same time, preferably morning and evening.

While formulating milk replacers, the energy source should be milk lactose. At this stage, calves have no sucrace enzyme, and should not be fed on sucrose (ordinary sugar). A great challenge that farmers face with milk replacer is getting your worker to do it right. Milk replacer ratios have to be mixed right with warm water and in very hygienic conditions.


If you delay giving it to the calf it loses heat and when it s cold it causes complications such as scours (diarrhea). Take care to measure the weight of your calf everyday to ensure its growing at the right rate.

In addition observe your calf closely and be keen to its condition to avoid illness creeping up on the calf. While milk is great for your calf, ensure you feed the correct amount.

Too little milk and your calf will not grow well and too much milk can cause incidences of scours (diahrrea). Scours can also be caused by unhygienic conditions and great care should be taken to protect your calves from the illness as it is one of the leading causes of death in calves.

In case your calf does develope scours you can get it medical treatment or give it a solution of water and salts to avoid dehydration.

Transition Stage (Weaning) For your calf to have a good start it must consume adequate amounts of high quality milk for the first two to three months, until weaning.

Calves require a minimum of 20% protein in the diet, but they also require specific amino acids-the building blocks of protein. When your calf is regularly consuming water and eats at least 1kg of calf starter per day-weaning can commence.

Alternatively, during week 6-12, you can cut back to milk feeding per day for a week to encourage starter feed intake in preparation for weaning.

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