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Feeding a Young Calf

Updated on March 11, 2015

The great thing about raising your own steer for beef is that you know exactly what it ate and can be assured that it was humanely treated. This article assumes you are going to raise a calf from newborn to adulthood and describes the process from early bottle feeding, to weaning.

Early Bottle Feeding

If you bought a baby calf, you will have to bottle feed it for awhile. Most likely, you will be using a commercially available milk replacer. This is basically powdered milk. It is usually purchased in 25kg bags from a feed store. There are several brands available, and they are usually of similar quality. The bag label will come with mixing instructions and the feed store may supply you with a specific measuring cup for the milk replacer. Follow the mixing instructions exactly. If necessary, weigh the powder to get exact measurements on how much to mix. Failing to do this could be fatal for the young calf.

Use clean utensils to prepare and serve the milk replacer. Use a whisk to mix the powder into warm water. Ensure that there are no lumps in the prepared mix because these can plug up your feeding nipple and are bad for the calf’s digestion.

When you buy your calf, find out if it is used to drinking from a pail, or a bottle. If it is used to being bottle fed, continue with this for at least the first few days after it arrives home. The typical white, 2L rectangular bottle with hard, pop on, red rubber nipple has fed many a calf and will probably work well for you if you are only raising one calf. If you are planning to continue raising calves, you may want to invest in a better bottle and nipple, such as the Peach Teat. These nipples are designed to be as close to a cow’s actual udder as possible. The nipple also has threads that screw onto the bottle, so a hungry calf can’t pull the nipple off and spill the milk.

A newborn calf.
A newborn calf. | Source

Switching to a Bucket

Once the calf is settled in, you can either switch it to a nipple pail, or regular bucket. Most nipple pails have a metal bracket that you can use to hang them on a fence rail. This allows you to feed several calves at once. At first, you may have to direct the calf to the pail, but once the calf learns to recognize it as food, it will run right too it.

If you choose to use a regular bucket, you are in for some basic training. First, get the calf to suck your fingers, then work on leading the calf’s head into the bucket of milk. Once you get the calf to follow your fingers into the pail, spread your fingers so the calf gets a mouthful of milk. This will take time and patience, but the calf will learn eventually.

In this author’s opinion, it is better to feed with a nipple bucket. The sucking action of the calf is important and aids digestion. It’s like us chewing our food properly.

Don't Overfeed

It is better to underfeed than overfeed. The average Holstein bull calf should be getting 2L, twice a day for the first few weeks. Eventually this can be increased to 3L twice a day. If the calf shows any signs of diarrhoea (also known as ‘scours’), cut back on the amount of milk you are feeding. It is very easy to overfeed a calf, because they will continue to seem hungry and want to suck humans, other calves, and object after they are fed. Stick to an appropriate amount of milk for the calf’s age and offer calf starter and a pail of water if the calf still seems hungry.

Solid Food

A calf should also be offered calf starter as soon as possible. Only put a small amount out at first, because the calf won’t be overly interested in eating it, and a lot will just get dirty and have to be thrown out. When the calf is larger, you will probably want to feed it from a shallow pan, such as the commercial rubber ones available at most feed stores, but while it’s young, a small container that can be hung up might be best. This will prevent the calf from walking through it.

To encourage the calf to eat calf starter, put some in its mouth just after it’s had its milk. This will help it acquire a taste for grain. The sooner the calf eats grain, the sooner its rumen will start to function.

A calf can be weaned anywhere between 8 and 12 weeks, as long as it is eating at least 2lbs of calf starter daily. At this point, you will probably see the calf lying down and ‘ruminating’ or chewing its cud. This means the rumen is functioning well. Wean the calf by gradually watering down is milk replacer. This will minimize weaning stress. Weaning is also the time to start feeding a good quality hay. The calf should already have access to plenty of clean water, but it is now more important than ever because the calf won’t have milk as a source of liquid.

With proper feeding, your calf will be big in no time!
With proper feeding, your calf will be big in no time! | Source

Expect the calf to be a little upset during the weaning process. This is okay, just do your best to wean gradually so the calf doesn’t become sick from the stress of a fast weaning.

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