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The calf is the foundation of the future dairy herd which signifies the importance of proper calf rearing. Selection of replacements for culled cows can only be effective if good replacement heifers are available and in enough numbers to allow for a more rigid selection. A good feeding and management programme will result in lower death rate (mortality), replacement heifers that start production early and fast growth resulting in rapid genetic improvement.

Management before birth

As calf management begins before birth, a few days before the calf is born, the pregnant cow is transferred to a maternity paddock, which should be near the home stead (for closer observation), well watered and free from physical objects. The signs of imminent parturition (calving) include filling of udder with milk and is turgid, vulva swollen with a string of mucus hanging from vagina. Insemination records can also be used to estimate the expected calving date. 

Management at calving

After the calf is born, ensure that calf is breathing. Should breathing not commence, the calf should be assisted (remove mucus from nostrils and if breathing does not start hold calf by hind legs upside down and swing several times). The umbilical cord should be disinfected using disinfectant (iodine or copper sulphate solution). If the calf is unable to suckle, it should be assisted and be allowed to suckle colostrum from the dam at will during the first week. Any excess colostrum should be milked and stored or fed fresh to other calves. During the second week of life and thereafter, the calf should be separated from dam and fed by hand.

Feeding of the calf

The primary concern in rearing the newborn calf is to ensure it remains healthy.

Feeding management should also be directed at addressing nutrient requirements and encouraging rumen development.

While designing a calf feeding program, the aim should be to reduce mortality (death) rate while maintaining a growth rate of about 400-500g/day. The growth rate will vary with breeds, for the bigger breeds the aim should be to wean calves at 3 months at approximately 80kg body weight.

Phases of Calf Feeding

Four phases of the calf feeding program

Phase Feed
Colostrum phase (1 – 4 days) Colostrum
Pre-ruminant phase (5 days to 20 – 30 days) milk
Transition stage (Liquids & dry feeds) Milk replacer and calf starter
Post-weaning stage (dry feeds) Calf starter

The aim should be to switch young calves to cheaper feeds as early as possible so that more milk can be available for sale. However, the diet must be able to promote health and growth.

KIMD CONSTRUCTION AND FARM CONSULTANTS LIMITED has quality breed calves of all ages at friendly prices. These calves are of high productivity and faster growth. We also have calf feeds and we deliver all over the world. Our other services include;

  • On farm training
  • Livestock feeds with seeds and pasture
  • Farm plans and proposals
  • Farm constructions
  • Animal structure constructions
  • Veterinary services..among others. Call us on 0789058152


Calf Feeding Programs

While developing a calf feeding program the following factors should be considered.

  • The calf has low immunity at birth and therefore must be given colostrum.The colostrum has antibodies that protect the calf against diseases the mother has been exposed to and their absorption is highest within 12 hrs after birth and very low after 24 hr. As such the calf must suckle colostrum immediately after birth and if necessary it should be given using a nipple bottle. The calf depends on the colostrum antibodies for about 2 weeks when it develops its own immunity. If new animals are introduced into the herd just before calving, it may be necessary to vaccinate them against the common diseases so that they can develop antibodies and pass then on to their new born.
  • The newborn calf is dependent on milk for nutrition and growth in its early life as the rumen is not functional. The suckling reflex forms a fold (groove) which serves as a pipe for delivering milk straight from the oesophagus to abomasum in young calves (bypassing fore- stomachs). Therefore, young calves should only be fed on liquid diets as the groove will not allow solids to pass.
  • Calves secrete high amounts of lactase enzyme (breaks down lactose in milk to glucose and galactose to supply energy). The other carbohydrate digesting enzymes are low and therefore, milk which has a high lactose level should be fed to the calves. During formulation of milk replacers, the energy source should be milk lactose. Calves have no sucrase enzyme, and should not be fed on sucrose (ordinary sugar).
  • Since the rumen is not functional, the calf cannot synthesize the B vitamins and they must be supplied in the diet. The diet of the newborn calf should contain milk proteins since enzymes to break down complex proteins do not develop until 7-10 days after birth.
  • Introduce calf to solid feed

As calf is introduced to solid feed, the rumen starts developing and the calf can be weaned as soon as it can consume enough dry feed (1.5% of body weight). It should be noted that dry feed should be introduced early, as solid feed is required for rumen development. Grain based diets promote faster growth of rumen papillae (which promotes rumen function) compared to roughages.

Calf Feeding Methods

After the first week during which the calf is left with the dam, several methods can be used for feeding depending on ease and convenience.

  1. Single suckling

A Calf suckling

The calf is separated with the mother but during milking it is brought to suckle. The amount of milk the calf consumes is difficult to quantify. Some farmers will allow the calf to suckle one quarter. This method is rarely used in commercial dairies. The disadvantage is that if the calf is not present, then the cow may not let down all the milk. This method is the best in terms of hygiene as the calf gets clean milk at body temperature.

  1. Foster mother or multiple suckling

In farms where several cows give birth at the same time, one cow can be assigned to a number of calves depending on milk production. The calves suckle in turns ensuring that each calf only suckles the designated quarter. This method is not practical in small scale farms. 

  1. Nipple suckling

A plastic nipple is attached to a clean bottle filled with milk and the calf is trained on how to suckle. An alternative is to attach a nipple on a short plastic hose pipe and insert the same into a bucket. The calf is then trained on how to suckle.

  1. Bottle feeding

The milk is placed in a clean bottle and the calf is fed directly from the bottle. This method is tedious and slow if many calves are to be fed. There is a high likelihood of milk going to the lungs via trachea. 

  1. Bucket feeding:

This is the most commonly used method and milk is placed into a bucket and the calf is trained to drink (place finger in the milk and as calf suckles your finger it takes in milk). Stainless steel buckets, where available, should be used for hygienic reasons as plastic buckets are difficult to clean.

Whatever method is used, clean equipment should be used at all times. Sick calves should always be fed last to minimize cross contamination. Attempts should be made to feed milk at body temperature especially during the cold season.

A calf bucket feeding

Calf feeds

  1. Preserved colostrum

High yielding cows may produce more colostrum than the calf can consume which can be preserved and fed later. The colostrum can be preserved by several methods. The most ideal is freezing but this may not be possible in small-scale farms without electricity supply. In such cases, the colostrums may be preserved through natural fermentation (storing at room temperature). Before feeding the preserved colostrum, it should be mixed with warm water at the ratio of 2 parts colostrum to 1 part water.

  1. Milk replacers

These are commercial products manufactured to resemble milk and are mostly used when there is no milk to feed the calf e.g where a cow is sick or died during calving.

They are also used when demand and price of milk is high. Preserved colostrums should be used as much as possible before a farmer decides to use milk replacer. Milk replacers are always of lower quality than whole milk and should only be fed if they are cheaper.

  1. Pre-starter

A pre-starter is a high quality calf feed, which should be low in fibre and is almost similar to milk replacer and is usually fed during the second and third week. It is fed in a dry pelleted form or as a meal. It should be used early to stimulate calves to eat dry feed to enhance rumen development. It is estimated that it takes rumen growth about three weeks after the calf starts eating a handful of dry feed, thus the earlier they start the better.

  1. Calf starter

The starter contains slightly higher fibre content compared with the pre-starter. At this stage the calf is consuming little milk and is in transition to becoming a ruminant. 


Calves should be offered only high quality forages early in life and supplemented with concentrates (calf starter). If hay is used, it should be of high quality, fine texture, mixed with legumes and fed ad lib. If they are on pasture, it would be best to always graze calves ahead of adults to control parasites. Some of the common roughages offered to calves are sweet potato vines and freshly harvested and wilted Lucerne.


Calves should be offered fresh water in addition to milk. Lack of drinking water slows down digestion and development of the rumen, and hence the longer it takes before calves can be safely weaned.

Between three weeks and weaning, calves’ water consumption usually increases and should be available all the time.This programme should result in growth rate of approximately 400-500 grams per day.


Weaning is the withdrawal of milk or milk replacer and the calf becomes fully dependant on other feeds. Traditionally, most dairy calves are weaned based on age, 12 weeks being the most common. Early weaning is possible if more milk is fed and calves introduced to pre-starter and starter early in life.

To minimize stress, weaning should be done gradually. The twice a day milk feeding should be reduced to once a day then to once every other day to allow the calf’s digestive system to adjust to the new diet.

Criteria that have been used to determine weaning time include when calf attains twice the birth weight, when the calf can consume 1.5% of its bodyweight of dry feed and age of calf.

Early weaning (5 to <8 weeks) may be adopted to reduce the milk feeding period and labour required for calf rearing. This will require a specific feeding program using low levels of milk and high energy, high protein concentrates, preferably pelleted to stimulate rumen development. Liquid milk or milk replacer is reduced from 3 weeks of age to encourage the calf to consume and maximize intake of dry feeds.

Calf Housing

Housing of calves is an important aspect of calf management. Claves are housed for several reasons, the most important being protection from adverse weather conditions and predators, avoid internal and external parasites and control feeding and management.

A calf pen should be constructed where possible from locally available materials. It should be constructed to:

  1. i) Allow approximately 2 m2 (1.2 X 1.5m) space per calf
  2. ii) Be well drained or bedded

iii) Be well lighted (artificial or natural).

  1. iv) Be well ventilated
  2. v) Strong to stand predator invasion.

Calves can be housed permanently indoor until weaning time when they are turned to pasture or semi-indoor where they housed only at night.

The calf house can be permanent or temporary and movable. Permanent houses should be constructed such that they are easy to clean when a new calf is introduced.

Temporary houses are moved from one location to another when new calf moves in. 


A calf house floor can be on ground level or raised. If at ground level, the floor should be made of easily cleanable material (e.g. concrete) and should be bedded using straw. The sides can be made of concrete or wooden. The raised pens should have a slatted floor. They are made of timber spaced at 1 inch to allow urine and feaces to fall on the ground. The house should be at least 1 foot from the ground.

A movable calf pen

The calf pen

Successful dairy production is based on proper rearing and management of dairy calves for herd expansion and as replacement stock. In East Africa, inadequate and/or inappropriate calf housing facilities remain a major problem undermining calf performance and survival. Calves are often housed in makeshift structures close to the main cattle shade, which predisposed them to a lot of bacterial infections and diseases like pneumonia. Such infections result into reduced growth rates and calf mortalities. To address the challenges identified with calf housing, the National Livestock Resources Research Institute (NaLIRRI) designed and fabricated a calf pen to optimize calf performance. Innovative attributes of the NARO-NaLIRRI calf pen prototype include;

  •  A slated floor to provide for good drainage of urine and to maintain warm beddings for the calf.
  • The pen has an exercise area to enable the calf to bask in the sun.
  • The pen is fitted with a 10 gauge welded wire mesh on the upper sides and at the back to improve ventilation.
  • The pen is fitted with a plastic nipple bucket which mimics the cow’s udder and facilitates milk acceptance by calves.
  • A back door to enable easy removal and replacement of the calf beddings with minimal disturbance to the calf.
  • The pen provides for individual feeding of calves based on their specific nutritional requirements.
  • Portability. Pen can easily be dismantled, reassembled and even moved from one place to another.

Recommended calf beddings can be untreated wood chips, shavings, sawdust, straw, or shredded paper.

 AT KIMD CONSTRUCTION AND FARM CONSULTANTS LIMITED, we construction all different housing designs and types for any number of livestock animals. These constructions are done at affordable prices and installment payments are allowed, we reach you wherever you are all over the world. Don’t hesitate to contact us at 0789058152.

In big dairies, calves can be housed individually or in groups. Individual housing is recommended during the first one month. When not possible then group housing can be done though there are several disadvantages including:

  1. Difficulty in feeding and management.
  2. Disease control is difficult.
  3. Fights among calves – decreased growth rate.
  4. Calves suckling each other which could lead to ingested hair (tend to form hair balls), blind teats and removal of disinfectant from umbilical cord.

  Feeding the calf

Raised calf pen: Suitable for newborn calves. This type of calf pen is suitable for a zero-grazing unit. It is placed inside the roofed and walled section of the unit. It may be permanent or movable. 

Individual pens for calves from birth to 2 to 3 months of age are often built with an elevated slatted floor. This floor will ensure that the calf is always dry and clean.

The required minimum internal dimensions for an individual calf pen are 1200 by

800mm for a pen where the calf is kept up to two weeks of age, 1200 by 1000mm where the calf is kept to 6 to 8 weeks of age and 1500 by 1200mm where the calf is kept from 6 to 14 weeks of age.

Three sides of the pens should be tight to prevent contact with other calves and to prevent draughts. Draughts through the slatted floor may be prevented by covering the floor with litter until the calf is at least one month of age.

The front of the pen should be made so that the calf can be fed milk, concentrates and water easily from buckets or a trough fixed to the outside of the pen and so that the calf can be moved out of the pen without lifting.



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