Calf Rearing

Course CodeBAG207
Fee CodeS2
Duration (approx)100 hours
QualificationStatement of Attainment


Calving is a very important aspect of cattle and dairy production.

  • For dairy herds where the majority of calves are reared away from their dams
  • For beef herds, the cow calves and then rears her calf for 6 - 7 months until it is weaned.

Student Comment
"I would recommend this course to anyone who wants to raise calves!!" R. Beitlich - Calf Rearing student.

Lesson Structure

There are 7 lessons in this course:

  1. Calving and Culling
    • Introduction
    • Research into raising dairy calves
    • Principles of good calf rearing
    • Pre-calving management
    • Managing the cow for a healthy calf
    • Colostrum management
    • Calf selection
    • Estimated Breeding Value (EBV)
    • Culling
    • Assessing calves for suitability in a rearing system
  2. Calving Management
    • The birth of a calf
    • Signs that the birth is close
    • Stages in a normal birth
    • Calving problems
    • Important points
    • Abnormal presentations
    • The calf at birth
    • Colostrum
    • Stress and pathogen exposure
    • Managing stress
    • Managing pathogen exposure
    • The calf digestive tract
    • Rumen development
    • Bacteria
    • Liquid in the rumen
    • Outflows of rumen materials
    • Absorptive qualities
    • Substrate (Dry feed Intake)
  3. Calf Health Management
    • Overview
    • Common calf diseases
    • Scours
    • Coccidiosis
    • Round Worm Scours
    • Lung worm
    • Calf diptheria
    • Pneumonia
    • Clostridial Disease
    • salmonella
    • Navel and joint ill
    • Stress and the young calf
    • Transport stress
    • Feeding stress
    • Heat and cold
  4. Calf Rearing Systems
    • Birth to weaning
    • Natural Systems of Calf Rearing
    • Single suckling
    • Multiple suckling
    • Foster suckling
    • Race suckling
    • Early weaning
    • Artificial systems of calf rearing
    • Teaching the calf to drink
    • A basic Feeding program
    • Milk Substitute
    • Common calf rearing systems
    • Rearing calves at grass
    • Five and a half day system
    • Once a day system
    • Cold milk system
    • Acidified milk replacers
    • Mildly acidic milk replacers
    • Strongly acidic milk replacers
    • Milk-fed veal production
  5. Calf Housing
    • Ventilation
    • Isolation
    • Comfort
    • Economy
    • Calf Pens
    • Metal crates
    • The calf hutch
  6. Weaning
    • Stress at weaning
    • General weaning transition strategies
    • Providing water
    • Weaning at twelve and eight weeks
    • Weaning at five weeks
    • Weaning at four weeks
  7. Post-weaning
    • Post weaning period
    • Calf husbandry practices
    • Reducing surgical stress
    • Cattle identification
    • Castration
    • Bloodless castration
    • Surgical Castration
    • Dehorning
    • When to dehorn
    • Dehorning instruments and equipment
    • Tetanus
    • Vaccination and Worming


  • Select calves for specified purposes, including dairy stock, and breeding stock.
  • Explain the methods of managing calving operations on a farm.
  • Explain the diagnosis of common health problems which may occur in calves.
  • Explain different techniques of calf rearing.
  • Explain the housing requirements of calves in an animal production situation.
  • Explain the procedures for weaning calves in an commercial situation.
  • Explain the post-weaning requirements of calves, in a commercial situation.

What You Will Do

  • Explain the phenotype factors related to the selection of calves.
  • Explain the genotype factors related to the selection of calves.
  • Write a checklist of criteria for selecting calves for dairying.
  • Explain how breeding can assist in obtaining calves for three different specified purposes.
  • Describe the different stages in the normal birth of a calf.
  • Explain the process of calving, in response to either observations of a calf being born, or the viewing of a video of a calf being born.
  • Explain at least five problems that can occur during calving, on a typical property in the learner's locality.
  • Analyse two case studies of problematic calving incidents.
  • List at least four methods for over-coming specified calving problems.
  • List the common health problems which can occur with calves in the learner's locality.
  • Describe the symptoms of at least three common calf diseases, including scouring.
  • Explain the possible effects of stress on a calf.
  • Explain an appropriate treatment for at least three common calf diseases, including scouring.
  • Develop guidelines for stock culling, for a specified property.
  • Analyse data in a case study in order to diagnose the health problems of a calf.
  • Report on an examination of the condition of a calf inspected by the learner.
  • Describe calf husbandry techniques observed by the learner, including:
    • Earmarking
    • Castration
    • Dehorning
    • Branding
    • Tattooing
    • Drenching
  • Compare natural calf rearing techniques with artificial calf rearing techniques.
  • Determine the appropriate method of calf rearing for a specified property.
  • List the criteria which need to be satisfied in the design of calf housing facilities, in the learner's locality.
  • Compare the suitability of different building materials for calf housing facilities, in different climates.
  • Analyse calf housing facilities on a specified property in order to determine the appropriateness of their design.
  • Prepare a design for a calf housing facility, including:
    • A sketch/concept plan
    • A description of materials
    • An estimate of cost
  • Explain the stages of weaning a calf on a property with which the learner is familiar.
  • List the possible problems which may arise in weaning calves.
  • Recommend suitable treatments for the weaning problems.
  • Explain the stages of post weaning for a normal calf on a property with which the learner is familiar.
  • List the problems which may arise with calves during the post-weaning period.
  • Explain any variations that may be applied to the procedure of post-weaning a calf.

Successful Calf Rearing means a more Profitable Farm

Successful calf rearing aims to produce healthy calves that grow into productive cattle; whether for beef production, or as replacement heifers for dairy herds.
Good calf-rearing should aim to:
  1. Have the minimum number of losses from calves becoming sick or dying.
  1. Achieve a strong growth rate resulting from efficient use of feed.
  1. Optimize the input costs and other expenses
  1. Require minimum labour
  1. Optimise use of available facilities
There is no single “best” method for raising calves; but rather a range of different husbandry practices that can be combined appropriately in different ways, according to differing circumstances.
Feeding, housing and husbandry tasks may need to be different in different climates, on different farms and under different economic conditions.

Anyone rearing a calf must understand the science involved to properly manage calf growth, nutrition, health, and calf behaviour. 


Dairy farms generally rear calves with greater attention than beef farms.

Beef cattle will feed their calves naturally, look after them and keep the calf out of trouble. This is how young animals are reared in the wild and it is the best way because the calf can help itself to small amounts of milk whenever it is hungry. The milk is clean and at the correct temperature. .

If you are rearing the calf, it is taken away from the cow at four days old so that the cow can be milked by hand or machine for the rest of her lactation. The calf is fed from a bucket or a calf milk bar, on full milk or milk substitute. This type of calf rearing is full of difficulties and the mortality rate among calves reared in this way can be very high. The focus of the following discussion will be on rearing dairy calves but the information provided is relevant to any situation where a calf must be taken from the dam and reared at an early age.

Housing Dairy Calves

There are many ways to house young dairy calves, for example, hutches, pens, groups, greenhouses, or calves tied to a post.  The method of housing will depend on the type of farm and the resources available. 

Each situation is unique and depends upon many factors including:

  1.  Farm topography
  2.  Land available
  3.  Farm buildings
  4.  The number of cows and calves
  5.  Available water

Ideally, once a young calf has been taken away from its mother it should be put into a single pen by itself and not with other calves. 

The reasons for this are as follows:

  • A calf on its own is much easier to feed with milk from a bucket. Trying to feed several calves in one pen with six buckets of milk all at the same time is a difficult operation because the calves will try to drink each other’s milk, tip over the buckets and generally make the process difficult.
  • When calves are fed on milk, particularly when they are getting only a small amount, once they have finished drinking their ration they will suck each other because their suckling instinct has been aroused by the milk but they have not had enough to be satisfied. Suckling each other is a bad practice as it can produce unnecessary health problems.
  • Young calves are fairly susceptible to disease and, if they are kept apart, there is less chance of diseases spreading from one to another.
  • The calf in a single pen cannot be bullied by others, and is not disturbed by them. They are quieter to handle and grow better.

Unfortunately the “ideal” situation is not always the most practical alternative. Regardless of the way calves are housed there are certain fundamental requirements that apply to all calf housing situations:

  •  Ventilation
  •  Isolation
  •  Comfort
  •  Economy

All dairy farms need a calf house for rearing calves. At its most simple, this should be a weatherproof building that will keep out rain and drafts. It does not have to be a fancy structure provided the calves are kept warm and dry without the air becoming stagnant. Two sure ways of killing a calf is to have a draft whistling over it or to have a muggy, over hot atmosphere. A good “Rule of Thumb” is: If you are able to spend a comfortable night in the calf house with no more than one blanket (or work effectively in there on a hot day), then the environment will be suitable for calves and disease problems should be minimised.


Ample ventilation, not temperature is the main requirement for calf houses. 

Ventilation means providing moving air, either through natural air flow or by providing windows, doors, vents, fans or heat exchangers. The calf house should provide an environment that:

  •  Reduces the flow of airborne pathogens from calf to calf
  • Eliminates noxious odours
  • Keeps mortality rate low

This is most economically achieved in a calf house that is naturally ventilated. The advantages of such a calf house are:

  • It provides the required environmental conditions (a young calf can tolerate a quite a wide temperature range)
  • It is 20 - 30 % less expensive than providing insulated, fan ventilated buildings
  • There are no expensive heaters, coolers, fans and control equipment to maintain
  • A naturally ventilated building makes management easier

If it is not possible to provide adequate ventilation naturally when converting an existing building for calves, then power ventilation should be used. It is well worth seeking the advice of a ventilation engineer as the cost of his services will be repaid many times by better calf health and performance.

Ventilation is needed, not only to extract moisture but also to remove dust, disease organisms and to replace stale air with fresh air. The ventilation system should also break up the gases produced in dung and urine. These gases will include ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide and methane.  These gases can impair health at low concentrations and can be lethal at high concentrations.

A good ventilation system in a calf house works just like a chimney.  Cool, oxygen rich air is drawn in just above the calves. The calves use the oxygen from the air. The air becomes warmer and starts to rise. Warm air can hold more moisture (and dust, gases and bacteria) than cold air. As the air rises, it takes these foreign bodies with it leaving a cleaner atmosphere behind. The contaminated air escapes from an outlet in the top of the building, drawing more oxygen rich air into the building.

If health and performance in an existing calf house is poor, a ventilation engineer should be called in. He will be able to measure the air inlet and outlet areas and the height difference between them to see that the stack effect is working.

Quite often, the problem is that the air inlet has become partially blocked with straw and other matter. Although the original inlet may have been large enough for the building, as soon as it becomes blocked the stack effect will be reduced and ventilation will become insufficient. Frequent cleaning and maintenance of the air inlets and outlets are an essential part of house maintenance.

It is important that there is enough space in the house for sufficient air. This is called the cubic air capacity and it is important because:

  • It dilutes the concentration of unwanted gases and other contaminants in the house;
  • A tall enough building allows air to be introduced just above calf level so that drafts are avoided;
  • A reserve of air acts as a buffer if the ventilation fails.

Providing an adequate cubic air capacity can be a problem when converting low buildings (such as poultry sheds) to a calf house. Although there may be sufficient ground space for a certain number of animals, there will not be enough height in the building to provide sufficient air. The number of calves should, therefore, be reduced.  Each calf should have a minimum cubic air capacity of 6 cubic metres.  Ideally, there should be a height of 1.5 to 2.5 metres between the air inlet and the air outlet to provide sufficient air space and enough "draw" to pull in fresh air. The inlet area per calf should be 0.0045 m2 and the outlet area should be 0.04 m2.


Isolation means that calves should be physically separated from each other. This fundamental concept assumes that calves cannot come in physical contact with each other or other animals. This is important because of their immature immune systems. Much of the disease young calves experience is caused by enteric pathogens that infect the calf by faeces to mouth, or animal to animal contact. By isolating calves we can significantly reduce the risk of disease transmission. Much of the success of using calf hutches is related to this concept.


Comfort is very important to keeping calves healthy. Calves that are comfortable can utilise the nutrients in their diet for growth gains rather than for battling the stress of their environment. Calves should be kept dry. Drainage and bedding are important to keeping calves dry.  A comfortable environment also means that calves are not exposed to draughty or windy conditions. Comfort also includes ready access to feed and water, without having to travel great distances. Comfort does not necessarily mean warm conditions, as calves can grow quite well in cold housing systems such as unheated barns, pens and hutches. However, this does not include severely cold or freezing conditions.


Minimising expense is crucial to the producer.  Economy refers to economy of labour. Housing should be designed to be labour-efficient and provide ready access to observe calves. Ease of cleaning after calves the calves have been moved out also contributes to labour economy. 


Learning about Calves can Benefit Anyone Working in the Cattle Industry

Many of those choosing to do this course will be working or hoping to work on a farm, but the cattle industry involves far more than just the front line farm workers. Farms are supported by a wide network of support services and suppliers of materials and equipment needed to keep the farm operating. Understanding and appreciating the whole process of raising calves is fundamental to being able to undertake any of these jobs.


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