Raising a Dairy Calf

The Lancaster Methods of Raising Calves

A good start for ALL calves:

Three feedings of colostrum after birth. From mother if safe (no transmissible disease), or from another clean cow’s frozen colostrum, or worst case scenario from powder.

We feed a full bottle (2 quarts) as soon after birth as possible, hand-milking the cow’s colostrum right into the bottle. Be sure the nipple on your bottle is not too large. If it drips a lot or streams out when you hold the bottle upside-down, then the hole is too big and could cause the calf to aspirate milk into its lungs.

The cow will get milked again in a few hours, or at the next milking time. We find that the calf does best on the freshest milk, so instead of trying to re-warm the first milking, it’s best to feed the current, fresh milking.

The first colostrum (what is left over after you feed the calf) can be kept and frozen for future use (for your use or someone may want to buy some from you for their animals or for emergencies). We like to pour the milk into freezer gallon or quart ziplock bags.

For calves getting fresh milk from their mothers via bottle/bucket:

After colostrum, feed 1 bottle of milk twice a day for two weeks. Every twelve hours is a good routine to be on, animals need consistency!

Grain is not necessary for these calves, as the milk is sufficient. You can feed a little handful of hay to get the calf interested, but try not to feed too much hay, as it will get wasted. Fresh hay every day is best, so just a small amount that they can consume in 12 or 24 hours.

Around two weeks old, get a bucket to pour the milk into. It needs to be in a sturdy rack and about chest height for the calf. Most likely the calf will not take right to the bucket, so you can help by guiding the calf’s nose to the milk, maybe dab a little milk on its nose or mouth. You can also dip your fingers in the milk and try to get the calf to nurse on your fingers, then slowly move your fingers down into the bucket until the calf is sucking up milk and you can slip your fingers out. The most difficult calves, you might have to take a nipple, dip it in milk, get the calf to suck on the nipple, then put the nipple into the milk and get the calf to suck on the nipple until it gets the idea of drinking. Our easiest calf took to the bucket immediately and never looked back. Some take a few days to get a hang of drinking out of a bucket, so be patient. I promise, they’ll learn!

Why do we use a bucket? On our dairy, heifers were raised in groups of 6-8 heifers. If they nurse on a bottle or on their mother for months, then they want to keep sucking things. This can lead one heifer to suck on another. Might be ears, might be on the face, but it might also be on the little teats of a heifer. Sucking can cause irreparable harm to a heifer’s future mammary system and sucking on ears can cause unsightly cuts and tears.

After a month old, and you have excess milk, you can increase the amount of milk to feed the calf. In nature, a calf can get 4-5 gallons a day or more from a cow! Hard to believe, but it’s true. My first calf was very hearty and healthy, and I fed him 2 gallons of milk per feeding, so a total of 4 gallons of milk each day. By 6 months old, he could have won any county fair as a beef steer! Note: this was milk given directly to him, still warm, after I milked his mother (who was tested and was healthy, so not passing along any disease!)

By 6-8 months old, a dairy steer or heifer should be able to grow on a hay/pasture diet alone. You can keep feeding a small amount of grain (a few pounds) if you want, but it is not a necessity. If weaning at less than 5 months, the calf may need to be supplemented with a little grain to prevent the potbellied effect for a couple months.

For calves on milk replacer:

We highly recommend feeding a non-medicated milk replacer. In addition, look for milk protein rather than soy-based replacer.

After colostrum, feed a 1/2 gallon milk bottle, twice a day. Try to keep a very consistent water temperature, close to but not exceeding a cow’s body temperature (101.5 F).

We always, always, always feed probiotics for milk replacer calves!! Your local farm store should sell them, and dosage is on the package (and comes with a measuring spoon).

Around 2 weeks old, transition to a bucket. At a week or two old, they will start to eat a little grain. They can also get some hay, but if you are worried about weight gain, then go for grain first and bring in hay a couple weeks later, just an handful or so. They’ll just nibble at the feeds and gradually you can increase the rations of grain and hay as they eat more. We usually work up to 1 flake of hay and perhaps 2-3 pounds of grain available to them daily at around 8 weeks and older.

In cold weather, a third feeding is advised to maintain energy levels so the calf does not start taking from reserves. We encourage the use of domes, especially when raising multiple calves. Individual housing greatly reduces the spread of disease. The design of a dome makes a warm, snug, dry home for a calf. Domes work for 2-3 months, and then larger housing is necessary.

Anywhere between 8 weeks and 3 months, you can decide when to transition off of milk replacer onto warm water and then cold water. (Feeding milk replacer longer than 3 months is very expensive and not really the best utilization of feed.) Note, we never condone weaning at a young age (some people do as young as 6 weeks!) unless the calf just absolutely cannot handle milk (yes, that happened once, was born sickly and no matter what we tried, he never took to milk!).

If you transition early, you will need to supplement with more grain. If you are having scouring problems, an easy solution is (IF old enough, 6 week is absolute minimum) to stop replacer and simply feed grain, hay, and water. That should stop any reoccurring scouring. 

For calves on their mothers:

No supplementation is needed. Make sure that the calf has access to water and some hay, so that they can start developing those tastes. At weaning time, they should be able to eat a full hay/pasture and water diet.

Weaning: A mother may or may not wean her calf. A calf can be weaned anywhere between 3 and 9 months. After 6-9 months, the valve that bypasses the first three stomachs closes off (heads to the fourth, where rennet coagulates the milk. Awesome, huh!) That means that they need to be weaned in that age range. Milk is for babies, hay is for adults!

Our beef cow always weaned her calves around 9 months and did the job herself by kicking the calf off and drying up her own udder. Some cows are so maternal, they won’t do the job! Then, you have to help her out by either removing the calf to an area where it cannot reach the mother to nurse or buying a type of weaning ring. We use a yellow plastic ring that just slides into the nose (no piercing or poking) and there are little spikes on top and the edge to discourage nursing. If weaning at 3 months, the calf may need to be supplemented with a little grain to prevent the potbellied effect for a couple months.

Does a calf need to be weaned? Yes! A cow needs a break between calvings. If she nurses one calf right up to the birth of the next, she has not built up her bodily reserves, plus the older calf is stealing the vital colostrum for the baby. A calf cannot survive without colostrum. Plus, older calves can start to bite and beat up on the cow’s udder, and no one deserves to be beat up! A resting period is essential for a cow, and studies have shown that a period of rest leads to a healthier lactation and better reproduction. This calf weaning ring is easy to use, reusable, and stays on great! http://www.valleyvet.com/ct_detail.html?pgguid=30e07afe-7b6a-11d5-a192-00b0d0204ae5

Scours: A healthy calf getting milk from its mother should not scour, because the raw milk has so many active enzymes and bacteria. If a calf does scour, you can read below about dealing with scours. Most likely, a mom-fed calf scours because of too much milk, so scale back if you think that is the problem and see if it corrects itself. If manure is orange or brown, it should be fine. If the manure is gray/white or bloody, you should contact your vet immediately.

For scouring: Treatment depends on each individual case. We use Sustain III bolus. They are long acting pills, so one is sufficient to kill off any bad bugs. You can start with something milder (like Terramycin (oxytetracycline)) if you think it’s a mild case of scours. You may not even need antibiotics if adjusting the amount of milk or adding more probiotics is enough to stop the scours. Worst case scenario, your vet can get you Excenel, which is 1cc for 5 days (We get a 6cc syringe filled, to make sure calf gets a full cc per day and just replace the needle each day.) That should kill off anything, and should only be used if other methods don’t work. Definitely ask your vet first!!

Disease prevention: Cows CAN transmit disease to their offspring through the milk. We recommend speaking to your dairy vet about testing (and later vaccinating for some of them) for: Johnes, BLV, BVD, bovine Tuberculosis, and anything else that may be applicable to your area. Additional disease prevention is to have a closed herd. Avoid ever buying animals from sale barns and auctions, because the sheer volume of animal leads to spread of infectious disease. (A dairy auction held by a reputable company such as the American Jersey Cattle Association is a different story, they are held infrequently and the animals are all tested for many things before sale and are safe to purchase. They are sales focusing on quality and not quantity.)

A note on university and scientific studies on calf raising: Most book and online sources are focused on commercial calf raising. If you are feeding milk replacer, then they’ll need to be raised differently than if they were fed fresh raw milk. Commercial attitude is a little milk replacer and huge amounts of grain. That creates the most DEVELOPED stomach, but not the HEALTHIEST stomach. The basic reasoning is that we want to produce healthy, long lived animals. Our goal is not to have the largest dairy heifers or ones that can calve at 18 months old and thrive in a pushy commercial environment for 1.4 years before succumbing to death. Besides, cows were never created to eat a full grain diet. They are ruminants, meant to live on grasses and legumes and slowly digest their food. So anyway, there you know our thoughts! (Still, cool pictures of calf stomachs if you’re interested: http://www.das.psu.edu/research-extension/dairy/nutrition/calves/rumen Universities also advocate feeding calves once a day to cut costs and pasteurizing all products, so keep that in mind when you read their “research”!)

Vaccinate, when? We like to vaccinate when calves get their brucellosis shot (Bangs vaccination). Bangs is given to heifers between 4-12 months old. They must be 4 months old at minimum, and a vet is required to give the shot/tattoo. Calves also get a Bovi-Shield Gold vaccination at that time. And have the vet check for extra teats, this is a great time to snip off any extra teats before they have a chance to develop. Just make sure you’re cutting off the extra teat and not one of the main teats.

WHEN IS THE BEST AGE TO WEAN? According to a study in the March 2011 Journal of Dairy Science, calves weaned at 3 months old (89 days) fared much better than calves weaned at 47 days. The younger calves had a larger decline in energy intake when being transitioned off of milk. In addition, of the two groups of younger calves, the group with higher milk intake had more weight gain. So, more milk and a longer time on milk will make a healthier calf that grows substantially more than a calf taken off milk at a young age. The older calves showed less signs of hunger at weaning. In times when milk is not worth much and grain is expensive, the calves fed with more milk ate less grain and hay, therefore cutting costs on those bought products and still producing a healthier calf!


  • “Delay Weaning to Reduce Detrimental Effects on Calves.” March 25, 2011 Hoard’s Dairyman, 200.
  • A.M. de Passillé, T.F. Borderas, J. Rushen. “Weaning age of calves fed a high milk allowance by automated feeders: Effects on feed, water, and energy intake, behavioral signs of hunger, and weight gains .” March 2011, Journal of Dairy Science Vol. 94, Issue 3, Pages 1401-1408

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