News & Advice

Rearing Beef calves

Jul 28, 2020 | Beef cattle, Dry stock

Preparation is essential when rearing beef calves. They are just babies! It is so easy for something to go wrong, and to go wrong quickly. Preparation is key; talk to your Anexa veterinarian about how to design proper facilities. We can also prepare you with what you need to have on hand (calf milk powder, meal, equipment, electrolytes) before your calves arrive.


‘How to design ideal calf-rearing facilities’ could be a whole article on its own. Feel free to contact your local Anexa veterinary clinic for advice, but just remember that calf pens need dry bedding and good air circulation but no draughts. From day one, calves need access to fresh water and meal.

Buying calves

First off, you need to decide why you are buying calves, how long you plan to keep them, and then choose the type of calf. If you are rearing calves for the fun of it and are not worried about how much you sell them for (or you are eating them), feel free to buy whatever type of calf you want. Even jersey heifers taste good!

You need to decide what you are going to do with your calves after weaning. If you are planning on selling them, it is good to organize a buyer first (in writing). White-faced calves tend to sell well at weaning, especially if they are black with full white faces (not spotted faces). Friesian bulls sell well at weaning too, as long as you have large numbers (20+), they are early calves, and they have white legs and white on their faces.

If you are keeping them, you need to have enough space on your property. When you finish cattle, it sometimes works better to buy the cheaper (but healthy!) calves (tiger colouring, etc). The biggest cost of calf-rearing is often the cost of purchase.

Do you know how many calves you want to rear? How many calves can you afford to feed? You can work on a cost of $150-300 per calf until weaning, not including the cost of purchasing the calf and equipment costs- feeders, etc. Costs can be lower if you are rearing large numbers (30+) and are already set up with facilities and equipment. Costs can be higher if you have disease outbreak or deaths.

Buying healthy calves

The number one tip for purchasing calves is to ensure they are healthy. Calf rearers can quickly get into serious financial trouble if calves become sick (needing treatment) or start dying from diseases. If a calf doesn’t get a feed of good quality colostrum (cow’s first milk after calving) within the first six hours after birth, it can be immunocompromised and have a much higher chance of getting disease and dying.

So source your calves from a farmer that you know will give them a good start. This is key – try your hardest to purchase calves directly from a farmer, not from the saleyards. Calves at the saleyards have an unknown history of colostrum and disease, get exposed to sick calves at the yards, and go through significant stress during the yarding process.

If you do decide to purchase from the saleyards, buy the healthiest looking calves there. The only clues to good health (and if they have received colostrum) is their appearance, so spend more money and (I repeat myself) buy the healthiest looking calves there. Don’t be tempted to buy the scummy mob with wet navels just because they were going cheap.

Bringing calves home

When you bring a batch of calves home, put them into a pen and leave them in that pen until they are ready to go outside. Don’t move them through pens or let them come into contact with other calves. Giving them an electrolyte feed on arrival, and then a milk feed four hours later really gets them over the transport stress quicker and helps them to adapt to whatever milk you are feeding them.

Wear wet weather gear so you can disinfect between feeding different pens. Have a fresh bucket of disinfectant (available at your local Anexa clinic) for cleaning between pens – don’t carry germs from one pen to another! Also, always enter any pen with sick animals last.

Let the calves settle in for a week before stressing them with dehorning or tagging etc. If you notice any sign of disease (especially bad scours), act quickly. It always helps to ring your vet to discuss best options before the problem gets out of hand. Provide adlib clean water, hay and meal (with a coccidiostat) from day one of arrival on farm.

Rearing calves on cows

It is true – nothing beats rearing a calf on a cow or feeding a calf the real thing (milk!). Bear in mind that it is often not easy to ‘mother-on’ calves. Not many cows readily accept calves that don’t belong to them. However it can be an effective, less expensive, and often less labour intensive way of rearing calves.

Feeding calves on milk powder

Calves do really well on a calf milk powder made from whole milk. With milk powder, you get what you pay for – in general, more expensive milk powders are better. Cheaper, whey-based powders will not get you the same level of growth and health in your calves. Good quality milk powder costs approximately $100 per bag.

It is important to make any feed change slowly. Find out how the calves were fed milk on their home farm (how much and how often) and stick with that schedule for the first couple of days before slowly changing it. If you can take a 20 litre bucket of colostrum with you, this is a great way to transition the calves onto milk powder. That way, for the first few days the feeds can be ½ colostrum and ½ reconstituted calf milk powder.

Follow the instructions on the bag for feeding milk powder, taking into consideration your calves’ needs. For example, young Jersey calves will not need as much milk (1.5 litres twice daily) as older white-faced calves (3 litres twice daily).

Weaning off milk powder

There are multiple methods for weaning, but best practice is to start slowly weaning when a calf is eating 1 kg of meal a day. This is usually a better method than weaning at a set weight (e.g. 80 kg), as some beef calves are quite large and have not had a chance to develop their rumen by 80kg.

Vaccinations, dehorning, and castration

Vaccinate calves against Clostridial diseases, castrate with a rubber ring, and disbud (if needed) between 4-8 weeks of age. There is now a legal requirement for the use of local anaesthetic when disbudding calves. If you are not licensed to use local anaesthetic, call your local Anexa veterinary clinic to ask about our calf disbudding service. Booster vaccinate against Clostridial diseases four weeks after the initial vaccination.

Remember, rearing beef calves can be fun, satisfying, and profitable. However, when things go wrong it can be very frustrating and even expensive. Never hesitate to talk to your local Anexa veterinarian before deciding to rear beef calves, or at any stage if you have any questions or concerns.

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