Calf Rearing



The way all calves are cared for on dairy farms can have major and long-lasting effects not only at the farm level but throughout the entire industry, where issues such as animal welfare, animal diseases and food safety can have significant consequences.

Managing calf health and welfare

Dairy calves are a critical part of dairy farming and must be carefully managed from birth to:

  • Ensure they grow to become productive members of the milking herd
  • Reduce the risk of disease
  • Ensure calf comfort and wellbeing
  • Reduce the risk of injury to other animals and people

Dairy Australia is working across the supply chain from farm to processor to ensure all calves are reared well and managed to meet agreed industry practices and standards.

Rearing Healthy Calves

The Rearing Healthy Calves manual can be downloaded at the bottom of this page, or a physical copy can be ordered here.

  • Managing calf health and welfare

    Calves need to be reared in clean and comfortable conditions. To ensure conditions are clean and comfortable, dairy farmers should:

    • Ensure there is adequate calf rearing facilities to meet current and future needs.
    • Provide calves with protection from wind, rain and heat
    • Make adjustments to ensure sheds have adequate air circulation while minimising drafts
    • Make sure dairy effluent does not enter the rearing environment
    • Choose a bedding material that is absorbent and comfortable whilst insulating calves from the cold
    • Top up bedding regularly and disinfect rails, partitions, walls and gates in calf pens
    • Make sure clothes and boots are clean to minimise spread of disease
    • Plan procedures to minimise the need to enter calf pens
  • Clean, comfortable environment

    Calves need to be reared in clean and comfortable conditions. To ensure conditions are clean and comfortable, dairy farmers should:

    • Ensure there is adequate calf rearing facilities to meet current and future needs.
    • Provide calves with protection from wind, rain and heat
    • Make adjustments to ensure sheds have adequate air circulation while minimising drafts
    • Make sure dairy effluent does not enter the rearing environment
    • Choose a bedding material that is absorbent and comfortable whilst insulating calves from the cold
    • Top up bedding regularly and disinfect rails, partitions, walls and gates in calf pens
    • Make sure clothes and boots are clean to minimise spread of disease
    • Plan procedures to minimise the need to enter calf pens
  • Identification and traceability

    There are a number of steps dairy farmers can take to ensure they are keeping accurate and complete records for all calves.

    • Record the date, sex and dam ID for every calf. This includes herd replacements and calves that will be sold
    • Ensure all calves are permanently identified as soon as possible after birth
    • Record any calving complications, treatments and health issues during rearing
    • Always clearly identify any calves that receive treatments or medications
    • All sale calves must have an National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) ear tag applied before leaving the property
  • Colostrum management

    Colostrum is essential for all calves, including heifer replacements and sale calves. Failure to absorb enough IgG (antibodies) from colostrum in the first 24 hours of a calf’s life makes the calf more susceptible to disease and death. This is known as Failure of Passive Transfer (FPT) and is relatively common.

    Good management practices (the four Qs - Quality, Quickly, Quantity and sQueaky clean) can limit the chance of FPT.

    • Quality – Colostrum should be harvested as soon as possible after a cow has calved. It is important to test colostrum quality, which can be one using a Brix refractometer to assess the antibody concentration in the colostrum before it is fed, stored or discarded.
    • Quickly – Feed calves as soon as possible, remembering the calf can only absorb antibodies for a short time after birth.
    • Quantity – use the Brix reading to adjust the volume of colostrum being fed. If in doubt, give more rather than less.
    • sQueaky clean – Make sure the colostrum is collected hygienically into clean collection containers. If storing colostrum, refrigerate or freeze quickly and avoid pooling from different cows.

    Defining colostrum

    Milk for human consumption must have a specific composition. Therefore, colostrum from the first milking post-calving and the transition milk from the next seven milkings post-calving must be excluded from the milk vat.

    Some milk companies refer to all substances from the first eight milkings as ‘colostrum’. Only first milking colostrum will ensure passive transfer of immunity to newborn calves. Transition milk is still very nutritious and can be fed to young calves.

  • Good nutrition

    Well-grown and healthy calves become productive herd replacements. To achieve good growth rates and excellent rumen development and function, calves need to be fed appropriate amounts of milk or milk replacer and good quality concentrate.

    Below are some tips for dairy farmers to help ensure their calves are receiving adequate nutrition.

    • Provide access to fresh clean water from birth.
    • Use the feeding method best suited to the operation (teat or bucket).
    • There is no difference to the calf whether it is fed warm or cold milk, but they should be consistently fed milk at the same temperature. This means if calves are being fed warm milk, this should continue.
    • High-volume milk or milk solid feeding can lead to significant increases in average daily gains and set up heifers to be more productive over their lifetime.
    • Surplus milk is the most cost effective liquid feed. If no surplus milk is available or the milk price is high, milk replacers may become cost effective.
    • Only use good quality milk replacers and mix to the manufacturer’s directions to ensure consistent results.
    • Introduce small quantities of grain or grain-based concentrates from day one. The breakdown chemicals in these supplements drive rumen development.
    • Introduce small amounts of good quality fibre from three weeks of age to ensure healthy rumen function.
    • Fibre should comprise no more than 10% of the pre-weaning diet.
    • Monitor growth rates by measuring the height and weight of a sample of calves.
  • Residue risk management

    Dairy farmers should actively manage the risks of residue contamination by using products as intended and avoiding contaminating sale calves.

    • Do not share feeding equipment between heifer replacements and sale calves.
    • Invest in separate, labelled feeding equipment for sale calves.
    • Develop a health plan and protocols for the farm. Vets are a good source of advice on this.
    • Make sure all staff receive training about what to do when calves get sick.
    • Use electrolytes as a first option for treating scours. Only opt for antibiotics after discussing the options with a vet.
    • Use antibiotic products carefully and only as directed. Observe withholding periods.
    • Keep sale calves separated from replacement calves and ensure no physical contact is possible.
    • Make antibiotic-treated calves highly visible and segregate them from other calves.
    • Record every treatment for every calf, every time.
  • Heat management

    To rear calves that thrive, planning for disease prevention is the key.

    • At calving time, monitor cows and be ready to intervene if needed.
    • Minimise exposure to infection. Remove calves from their dams early and keep the rearing environment clean.
    • Adopt a preventative disease program (vaccination and parasite control) and implement the Three-Step Calf Plan for the control of bovine Johne’s disease (BJD).
    • Endeavour to keep calves away from faeces and reduce their exposure to pathogens.
    • Monitor calf health regularly and act quickly if problems arise.
    • Handle sick calves carefully to minimise the risks of infecting healthy calves.
    • Develop treatment protocols for the common calf diseases and training on how to implement them. This helps busy staff and encourages consistency.
    • Use products as intended and avoid contaminating sale calves.
    • Use humane slaughter techniques when calves must be euthanased.

    More information on calf scours is available on the scours page.

    More information on the prevention of bovine Johne's disease (BJD) is available on the BJD page.

  • Weaning management

    Weaning is a time of great challenge for the calf and so it needs to be managed carefully.

    • Make sure calves reach their concentrate intake consumption targets before weaning.
    • Monitor growth rates and concentrate intake to determine the best time to wean calves.
    • Weaning should be a gradual process to minimise the stress on the calf.
    • Heifers need a high-quality diet after weaning to achieve their target live weights at mating.
  • Care before transport and sale

    All farmers must comply with the land transport standards.

    • Make sure all calves transported from the farm are fit to load.
    • All calves consigned to a saleyard, calf sales or to a processor must be at least five days old.
    • Ensure calves receive a liquid feed within six hours of transport and keep records available for audit.
    • Provide shelter prior to pick up and keep calves dry and draught-free. If it is hot, shade may be required.
    • Any calves sold must be antibiotic free and not subject to any withholding period.
    • Sale calves must be identified with an NLIS tag and be accompanied by a vendor declaration.
    • Calves must be handled gently at all times.

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Supporting documents

  • Rearing healthy calves 2nd edition

    (07 October 2020)
    PDF,6.65 MB
  • 10 steps to keep calves antibiotics residues free factsheet

    (09 July 2020)
    PDF,505.63 KB
  • Understanding calf milk replacers factsheet

    (09 July 2020)
    PDF,2.11 MB

Calf management calculators

  • Colostrum calculator july 2012

    (09 July 2020)
    XLSX,12.64 KB
  • Electrolyte replacement estimator

    (09 July 2020)
    XLS,46 KB
  • Calf housing calculator

    (29 June 2020)
    XLSX,35.77 KB
  • Calf bedding calculator 2012

    (09 July 2020)
    XLS,51 KB

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