Raising a Dairy Calf

The Lancaster Methods of Raising Calves

A good start for ALL calves:

BirdieThree feedings of colostrum after birth, about every 12 hours.

  • Ideally, from the mother at time of birth if safe (no transmissible disease), or
  • from another clean cow’s frozen colostrum, or
  • worst case scenario from commercially prepared colostrum powder

We feed one 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 weak. 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.

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 from 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. Be sure to label with the cow’s name and the date.

HOUSING: Ideal is a calf dome for the first month or two. 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!


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


After colostrum, feed 1 bottle of milk (2 qt/half gal.) twice a day for 2-3 weeks. Every twelve hours is a good routine to be on, animals need consistency! In winter months, a third bottle can be fed mid-day, or a partial bottle if they can’t handle that much extra yet.

Grain & hay, or extra water, is not necessary or recommended for these calves, as the milk is sufficient.


Around two 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 more milk in the larger container.


???????????????????????????????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 1.5-2 gallons of milk per feeding, so twice a day. They grow really well on this.

GRAIN: We choose not to feed grain, but instead to make sure they get ample supply of milk.

HAY: By 2-3 months old, they’re learning to eat hay and by 4-5 months old, they’re eating a whole flake per day.

WEANING: After 4-5 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 calves fed replacer only make it 2 months)

We make sure the calf is drinking 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!

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 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!!

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.(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.

7 thoughts on “Raising a Dairy Calf

  1. Thank you for sharing your knowledge! We newbies need lots of help! It’s a lot of work and worry, but so worth it. I just love your website! I used your info when my cow had udder edema. We got through it just fine! I’m sure we’ll get through this as well! 😊


  2. She’s making about 8 gallons a day. She gets 8 lbs of 12% + 8 lbs of 16% + 4 lbs alfalfa pellets broken up over two feelings per day, at the vet’s recommendation. I did wonder if the 16% was a little high. We’ve been trying to train the calf to drink out of a pail following the directions on your website, but no success so far. Mama’s conditions isn’t as bad as it was before we upped her feed, but she hasn’t come back into heat, so I thought maybe weaning him and getting her on OAD milking would help. However, I don’t want the calf to suffer either. She does look shiny and energetic, just too bony.


    • 16.5% is the ideal digestible amount of protein for dairy cows – which is why that’s what most dairy grains are. It looks like a good program your vet has you on. 8 gallons is a lot of milk to be giving at 3 months fresh, for a family cow!
      If you’re letting the calf nurse, he won’t likely take to the bucket – you’d have to wean the calf from mom and let it get hungry, then it’d learn the bucket. :)
      Some cows don’t have heats while they’re nursing calves, plus a thin cow giving 8 gal at 3mo fresh – I’m not surprised she hasn’t had a heat yet. Weaning calf to a bucket may help.
      I would not recommend going to OAD milking – 8 gallons is a lot of milk and you’d sure risk some issues like mastitis or protein poisoning by trying to only milk once a day.
      If it were my cow, I’d just keep up on the feed program, milk twice a day, and give her a longer dry period when the time comes. You might also talk with your vet about how to handle the next lactation, what you might do for a feeding program to try to keep her from milking so much. One thing I’ve heard, is to not feed grain until after the cow has calved, and slowly increase to her amount over the first two weeks in milk. You’d want to keep a close eye on her for ketosis, but that method might work for you.


      • Thanks so much! How long would you give a calf to learn the bucket? We gave him three days of no nursing, but he didn’t catch on, and I finally let him nurse. He doesn’t want to suck on my fingers or on a bottle. He’s big and it’s a rodeo! Is he too old to learn?


      • The older they are, the slower to learn. Calves can be quite stubborn. I wouldn’t let him back on the cow, otherwise he’ll know he can hold out for that. You can always keep the bucket of milk in his pen and dump out whatever he doesn’t drink when you pour in the next feeding. Keeping hay, grain, and water available could help too, just to teach him to start nibbling and drinking from the water bucket. You can put his nose down into the bucket to get a little milk on his nose, but after trying enough times, it’s just stubborn will and time is all that will work, til the calf gives in and takes off. :)


  3. Hello! Our calf is 3 mos. old, and the mama is making tons of milk, but is too thin. I’d like for her to make less milk so that she can gain weight. She’s eating 16 lbs of grain, plus alfalfa for the calcium. Would it be best to wean a little early for the sake of the mama?
    Or, maybe let the calf nurse only once a day?
    Thank you!


    • How many gallons (or pounds) of milk is your cow giving per day? What % protein is your grain? (Try feeding a lower protein grain, high carb = body condition. protein = milk production.)

      Yes, you could limit the amount of time the calf nurses, if your cow is ok with that. I’d still recommend the calf get 2 feedings a day – whether that means you milk the cow and bucket feed the calf, or bring the calf in to nurse.

      Some cows are just heavy producers, there’s not a lot you can do except feed her really well. You can also give her a longer dry period in hopes that she can put some body condition back on before calving (not to allow her to get fat, but to get her to a healthy fresh cow body condition. https://spiritedrose.wordpress.com/jersey-cattle/medicine-box/body-condition/


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