The Lancaster Methods of Raising Calves
A good start for calves:
Three feedings of colostrum after birth, about every 12 hours. (At birth; 12 hours after; 24 hours after)
- Ideally, from the mother at time of birth (if safe – meaning the mother has no known transmissible disease), or
- from another cow’s clean/safe colostrum (fresh or frozen), or
- if unable to do one of the above options, there is the choice of purchasing commercially prepared colostrum powder (feed as directed on package).
We feed one full bottle (2 quarts) as soon after birth as possible, hand-milking the cow’s colostrum right into the bottle.
We recommend Merrick brand bottle & nipple. Be sure the nipple on your bottle is not too soft. If the nipple drips a lot or streams out when you hold the bottle upside-down, then please replace with a newer one as the hole is too big and could cause the calf to aspirate milk into its lungs. Throw away the old nipple. Regularly clean the bottle and nipple, being careful to rinse off all cleaning agents. A large bottle brush is helpful to clean inside the bottle.
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 calf from the current, fresh milking.
The first milking’s 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. Be sure to label with the cow’s name and the date. Read more on colostrum handling here: Freezing and Thawing Colostrum
HOUSING: Ideal is a calf dome for the first month or two, but not everyone has access to purchasing one. Minimum standards include a roof, protective enclosure from inclement weather, and ability to stay dry and warm with a bed of straw or shavings. An outdoor area to run around in is really beneficial, too!
The photo below shows a simple calf house made from scrap plywood, rough cut lumber, and pallets. The fencing is cattle panels on one side and orchard fencing on the other (this pen gets taken down in summer and the house is used as a garden hut for storing tools…)
For calves getting fresh milk from their mothers via bottle/bucket:
FIRST TWO WEEKS:
After colostrum, feed 1 bottle of milk (2 qt/half gal.) twice a day for the first 2-3 weeks. Every twelve hours is a good routine to be on, animals do good with consistency! In winter months, a third bottle can be fed mid-day, or split the two bottles into three feedings, if they can’t handle much extra yet.
- Note larger breed calves such as Holstein or Brown Swiss may require a larger feeding of milk as a young calf (three bottles or the one gallon bottles twice a day)
- MILK SCOURS: Calves (particularly when fed high-fat milk) may “milk scour” if the mother’s milk is too rich. Here are some tips:
In my experience, milk scours from too-rich milk are usually gray or white and runny, maybe even liquidy. I’ve seen it stay manure color and just be liquid, but that’s less common. I have seen blood streaks, but that’s less common as well. In all cases, Whew! is it STINKY!! The calf is usually acting 100% normal, but sometimes they will kick at their belly or hunch when going to the bathroom (it can be acidy).
If the calf is happy, nursing, active, alert, then I proceed as normal, but with either skimmed milk or watered-down milk. Skimmed is nice because you’re getting everything except that excess cream, whereas watered down milk is just…watered down, still proportionally a lot of cream. But both methods should work to relieve the scours. Literally within a feeding or two, the manure should be significantly better and the calf should be back to normal in approx 48 hours.
If I don’t catch it right away, the following can be added to the milk to supplement/improve digestion for a few feedings:
- The following recipes imply a “regular” calf feeding from a half gallon sized calf bottle
- SLIPPERY ELM: Three capsules or 1 Tbsp. included in milk or hand-fed just before feeding milk. Slippery Elm works to soothe the mucous membranes of the intestinal tract, improving absorption of fluids. Dehydration is often the most dangerous symptom of scours in calves.
- RENNET: Add to milk abt. 1/2 tsp. liquid calf rennet to the milk feeding – feed immediately (other rennets will work as well, follow package dosage for what you would use to make a 1 gal. batch of cheese.) Alternately, use a syringe to squirt 1/2 tsp. rennet, diluted in several cc warm water, in the back of the mouth of the calf just before feeding milk. If you wait too long to feed the renneted milk, the milk will coagulate and not come out the bottle. 🙂 This illustrates the reason for using rennet – it helps solidify the milk to slow digestion and temporarily aid in slowing diarrhea.
- Fastrack PROBIOTICS: Can add recommended package dosage to the bottle of milk before feeding. This is an essential addition if feeding milk replacers or questionable milk or if the calf is sick. Fresh, healthy raw milk should have sufficient enzymes for the calf to be able to digest but any processed milks would benefit from the addition of probiotic.
- ELECTROLYTES: Feed regular or skimmed/light milk feeding in AM and PM with a mid-day feeding of electrolytes (half to full bottle of water with % powdered electrolytes added as directed in package. Resorb is a great “calf-specific” brand, but there are also other “multi-species” brands available.) Electrolytes help balance the inner workings of a calf’s digestion (similar as for humans) and helps with hydration while the calf is improving in health.
Grain & hay, or extra water, is not necessary for these calves, as the milk is sufficient. A small handful of hay or grain is fine to try, although the calves may not eat much. Extra water can be put out as long as the calf is not filling up on water and refusing to drink milk (milk is first priority, water is secondary). Extra water can be a good “safeguard” to keep out in hot summer months. That’s something our climate rarely has to deal with, but in hot, humid climates, calves may require additional water beyond what is normal.
TWO WEEKS to ONE MONTH:
Continue feeding half a gallon (or your breed-specific amount) of milk twice a day – Do not yet increase the amount of milk. Transition to bucket on same amount of milk and increase amount after the transition has taken place.
Around 3-4 weeks old, get a bucket to pour the milk into. It needs to be in a sturdy bucket (we like the horse buckets with the built in hooks) and about low-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!
Grain is still 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 chew on in 12 or 24 hours.
Why do we use a bucket? On our big 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. By bucket feeding, that issue is reduced and calves can start to consume milk in a larger quantity. So buckets provide larger milk feeding capabilities for the maturing calves, convenience for the farmer, less risk of “sucking” on other calves, and mimicking how a calf will learn to drink water.
ONE MONTH to WEANING:
MILK: After a month old, and if you have excess milk, you can increase the amount of milk to feed the calf. Our dairy heifers drink around 1.5 gallons of milk per feeding, twice a day. They grow really well on this. Our steers get closer to 2 gallons twice a day (four gallons per day total) because we want to put weight on quick!
Gradually increase milk from half a gallon per feeding to more. Add a pint more every couple of days and watch their manure closely – if the manure gets soft, do not increase their milk for a few days (or decrease a bit if they get the runs). Our calves are three months old by the time they’ve developed the capacity to drink 1.5 or 2 gallons of milk at a time.
GRAIN: We choose not to feed grain, but instead to make sure they get ample supply of milk. If your milk supply is limited, 1 gallon of milk per day is bare-bones minimum. By a month old you would need to start supplementing that diet with some grain (a cup or two daily) and increase grain as they learn to eat it.
HAY: By 1-2 months old, they’re learning to eat hay and by 4-5 months old, they’re eating a whole flake per day.
WEANING: After 5-7 months old, you can decide when to wean – depending on milk supply, convenience, growth of the calf, etc. (The minimum time on milk should really be 3 months, although some feed calves milk replacer only 2 months and then feed heavy grain the next several months.)
We make sure the calf is drinking cold water and eating plenty of hay before weaning.
Trick to teaching a calf to drink water:
When thinking about weaning, start diluting the milk with warm water. Gradually reduce the amount of milk over several days or weeks until the calf is getting warm water. Then gradually reduce the temperature of the water. Soon you’ll be giving them cold water and they won’t realize what even happened!
Alternately, it’s a good idea to offer water to calves or keep a small trough handy so they can learn to drink cold water on their own. This can be difficult in frozen winter months, but in summer months water should be available daily to older calves.
Really young calves may fill up on water and then not drink their milk, so be careful to monitor young calves and make sure they are drinking milk first, water second.
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.
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 10 months. A normal average would be between 6-8 months old for natural weaning. After 6-9 months, the valve that bypasses the first three stomachs closes off (the valve that diverts milk to the fourth stomach, 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 under 5 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. (So do humans, in case you’re wondering! 😉 )
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.
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.
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. Many replacer-fed calves tend to scour, which can make management of purchased calves more difficult.
For treatment of scouring: Treatment depends on each individual case.
Start with electrolytes (such as Resorb):
- Continue AM and PM milk feedings
- Mid-day add one packet of electrolytes to warm water and give to calf
- If they’ll take it, you can give electrolytes again just before bed
- Don’t mix milk and electrolyte feedings!
For cases where electrolytes aren’t enough:
For calves over 1 month, you can 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!!
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”!)
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.(Update: We now have a closed herd and choose not to calfhood vaccinate any more, except for Brucellosis)
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.