Raising Calves: A Guide To Getting The Best Possible Start

Birth, nutrition, and various transitions such as weaning are part of raising the best calves possible. Increase your knowledge to give yours a great start.

by Leslie J. Wyatt
PHOTO: Shutterstock

My dad worked with cattle all his life. This meant that as ranch kid, I ended up helping him assist his herd through a lot of calving seasons. I enjoyed being his right-hand gal and came away knowing that a lot of care goes into giving newborn calves a good start. From feeding and nutrition to dehorning and more, today’s hobby farmers are vital in helping their calves thrive from birth to six months and beyond.

Good Beginnings

Calves have been surviving birth for eons. The cow gives birth, the baby gets up and suckles, and all is well. But sometimes there’s trouble at calving time; the first few hours or days can be rough, and without help, a newborn calf can die.

“In dairy cattle, 75 percent of perinatal mortality occurs within one hour of birth,” says beef cattle extension veterinarian Max Irsik at the University of Florida. He writes in Critical Care of the Newborn Calf that, in beef cattle, 69 percent of calf deaths between birth and weaning occur within 96 hours of birth. Though calf losses predominantly occur at or shortly after birth, the mortality rate tapers off significantly after one month of age.

That is because immediately after birth, several critical things need to happen. The first of these is breathing. Typically, the membrane enclosing the calf breaks in the birthing process, freeing the nose. However, sometimes that membrane doesn’t break or remnants interfere with breathing. The mother cow usually takes care of this, standing as soon as she gives birth, pulling the membrane from the calf, and beginning to lick her baby’s face and body vigorously.

raising calves newborn

However, when birth has been particularly prolonged or difficult, a calf may be born floppy and unresponsive. Should this happen, immediately check for a heartbeat. If present, begin immediate resuscitation, ideally within 30 seconds of birth. Irsik advises placing the calf in sternal recumbency—lying in normal upright position rather than flat on its side. This position maximizes lung capacity.

“To insure a patent airway, calves should have their upper respiratory tract—nose and mouth—cleared of any fluid or physical obstruction,” Irsik says. “This is often accomplished simply by wiping the nostrils and opening the mouth and removing any mucus or fetal fluids.” Sticking a blade of grass or a finger into the calf’s nose can initiate the gasping reflex, as can dashing cold water on its head. Mouth-to-nose or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is difficult, and air may fill the abomasum, crowding the lungs.

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Fortunately, these cases are the exceptions rather than the rule. In a normal situation, the calf is born, it breathes and the mother gives it a vigorous licking, which stimulates circulation and breathing and also helps dry the calf so that it can maintain body temperature.

“Once the calf is born, we make sure the face is cleaned off and that airways are clear,” says Beatrice Jensen of Livin Dream Ranch in Polson, Montana, about her birthing protocols. Jensen and her husband raise Miniature Herefords. “We have towels ready for rubbing to stimulate breathing and a suction bulb to clear airways if either is needed.”

Smooth Transitions

Not all cows are amazing mothers. Some first-timers may just walk off. Maggie Howley of Pine Crest Dairy, Custer, Montana, has been raising cattle with her husband Jack for 40 years. “Sometimes, first-time mothers are unaware of what has happened, and maternal instincts are not yet activated,” she says. “Sometimes, just walking around a bit will help them, and they will come back to the calf. Watch and see.” While you’re watching, stimulate the calf by dry-toweling vigorously and make sure it stays warm.

At some point during this first half hour, apply iodine solution to the umbilical stump to prevent infection.
A spray bottle works well for this. Clean surroundings also promote navel health. Some producers also choose this time to administer vaccines, but more on that later.

The calf’s next milestone is standing to get that first all-important meal of colostrum. “The calf should be up within 30 minutes of birth and nursing within an hour,” Howley says. “If not, this may indicate a weak calf that may require help getting to the cow to nurse. If the calf can’t stand, the cow may have to be milked and colostrum given from in a bottle.” She adds that signs of a calf needing help include listlessness and giving up after unsuccessfully trying to nurse. Jensen notes that she and her husband or daughter may help a calf stand steady and find the teat, though most of the time the calves are able to do it all on their own.

An occasional cow won’t want to let her baby nurse. She may feel threatened by the wobbly creature that keeps sticking its face between her legs. In such cases, my dad would get a lasso around the cow’s head, fashion a quick halter out of it and take a few wraps around a post in the corner of the calving shed. My job was to keep that rope from slipping. Meanwhile, Dad would direct the calf to the right end of the cow, expressing a bit of colostrum onto its nose and directing its mouth to the teats.

It usually took several tries, the calf butting everything close as it got excited but ultimately getting latched on and gulping. At this point, Dad would signal me to ease off on the rope so the cow could smell her baby. Sometimes, it only took one such session, and the pair would bond. Other times it took three- to four-times-a-day feedings for days. We got kicked, despite hobbles. Rope burns were also common.

Jensen shares a much easier and less dangerous method: “A chute is a good tool to use for a cow that’s not willing to let her calf nurse,” she says. “Once she’s in the chute, she can’t go anywhere. The sides can drop down and the calf can have access to her udder.”

Protective Strategies

Our injuries in the process of helping a calf nurse were accidental; the cow wasn’t really kicking at us but at the calf. However, cows can be incredibly protective of their newborns, and you never want to turn your back on one, no matter how much of a pet she is the rest of the time. A hand-raised cow may merely shuffle nervously and calm down when you talk to her.

My dad’s Angus range cows were a whole different animal, so to speak. We never approached a newborn calf and mama cow without a good-sized stick to ward her off. A neighbor trying to assist a new calf was trampled and butted repeatedly before he could roll under the bottom rail of the corral. He staggered away with three broken ribs and internal injuries.

“If a mother cow is not a family pet and you are unsure of her personality, protect yourself by getting the calf and yourself separated from the mother cow,” Howley says. “Keep a panel, gate or pickup between you if out on the range. Regardless, keep your eye on the cow and stay in shape—and be ready to run!” And a further bit of caution: Make sure any children present are out of danger’s way should a mama cow come unglued.

Beyond Birth

Once the calf has passed that critical neonatal stage and is nursing well, it will be fine nutritionally and will learn from the mother to begin eating grass or hay. Ideally, during the first 60 days, all nutrition will come from the nursing mother. A healthy calf will be active, alert and playful. “We make sure the cow has plenty of feed and water to produce plenty of milk for her calf and to keep her in top condition,” Jensen says.

Bottle babies will need some extra help in the nutrition department.

Bottle Babies

raising calves calf bottle babies

For bottle/bucket babies, the name of the game is nutrition. First food is always the same: colostrum; if not from the mother, commercial colostrum is sufficient, but check the label. “All calves should receive colostrum within 2 to 4 hours of birth,” according to Jud Heinrichs, professor of dairy science, and Coleen Jones, research associate, at Penn State University, in Early Weaning Strategies. “Research suggests that calves should be fed at least 100 grams of IgG (Immunoglobulin G), and feeding 150 to 200 grams is recommended to ensure plenty of IgG is available to the calf.”

After 24 hours on colostrum, unless you have fresh milk available, you’ll begin feeding milk replacer. You’ll want one made from milk, and containing 20 percent protein and 20 percent fat. Many include a prebiotic and biomass for boosting virus resistance; the added health benefits are worth the extra cost. Follow instructions on the bag as to dilution and amount to be fed.

Twice-daily feeding is adequate, though three times a day gives optimum growth for at least the first month. After week one, introduce a textured grain mix containing 16 to 18 percent protein to begin to develop the rumen and provide additional nutrition, starting with just a 1/4 pound a day. Gradually increase so that by 8 weeks, consumption is a minimum of 2 pounds daily.


raising calves weaning

Calves with mothers tend to wean at 4 to 6 months of age, but for bottle calves, the transition is earlier. In Early Weaning Strategies, Jud Heinrichs, professor of dairy science, and Coleen Jones, research associate, at Penn State University, stress that while calves can be weaned as young as 21 days old, studies show that “calves weaned at 3 weeks did not voluntarily eat enough starter in the week before weaning, so starter was handfed to aid rumen development. For this reason and the fact that 21 days is minimal for adequate rumen development, weaning at 3 weeks is not recommended.” It usually takes 4 to 6 months before complete rumen development takes place.

Note that “adequate” rumen development is not optimal. After 40 years experience, Maggie Howley of Pine Crest Dairy in Custer, Montana, recommends 8 weeks as a much more calf-friendly weaning age. “It will take about one 50-pound bag of milk replacer and 60 pounds of grain mix calf starter for a calf to reach the weaning stage,” she says.

In Feeding and Management of the Dairy Calf: Birth to 6 Months, prepared by Buelon Moss, extension animal scientist; Dale Coleman, associate professor, and James Floyd, extension veterinarian, at Auburn University, “a calf should consume at least two pounds of grain per day before it is weaned.”

To begin weaning, reduce the amount of milk replacer you’re feeding by cutting back to one feeding a day or halving the amount per feeding. Offer plenty of clean water and good quality hay, while continuing to slowly increase grain intake. After one week, cease feeding milk replacer and continue with the other nutrition sources. “As the animals mature and grow, forage can make up a greater part of their diet while they still get their 5 to 6 pounds of grain per day,” according to Heinrichs and Jones. “This amount of grain should likely be maintained at least until 6 months of age.”

At this point, your bottle baby is a baby no longer, with a fully developed rumen and able to convert forage to protein to optimum effect.

Learn More: Early Weaning Strategies by Jud Heinrichs and Coleen Jones. Feeding and Management of the Dairy Calf: Birth to 6 Months prepared by Buelon Moss, Dale Coleman and James Floyd.

Odds & Ends

Vaccinations for cattle are a bit less fraught with controversy than those for humans, but different schools of thought exist amongst veterinarians and farmers alike.

Opinions also differ as to the best time—and way—to castrate. When done in the first few weeks, banding a bull calf is relatively simple and inexpensive. Waiting until closer to weaning means gain in muscle growth, but the tradeoff is that “bullish” behaviors tend to set in at 4 to 6 months, and if the calf gets too big, even large banders won’t do the job. The vet must remove the testes surgically. This is a lot more difficult on the calf than banding, recovery is longer, the risk of infection is higher and it’s more expensive.

If the calf is not a polled breed (livestock without horns in species that are typically horned), it may need to be dehorned. Cattle with horns are just more dangerous; that’s the bottom line—dangerous to themselves and people. Dehorning is optional, but if you’re planning to get rid of the horns, know that the process is easier on the calf if done early, when horn buds can first be felt under the skin. Methods vary.

“I like dehorning paste in the first couple weeks of life, applied over the horn bud,” Howley says. The paste is a caustic blend of calcium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide. A thin film about the size of a nickel applied on the horn buds destroys horn-producing cells through chemical means. To prevent the paste from getting on the cow’s belly or udder when the calf nurses, cover the sites with a strip of duct tape. By the time the tape falls off, the area should be scabbed over and free of chemicals. Mechanical cutters are another method. Apply blood-stop powder after use and protect from flies. At the Jensens’ ranch, they use an electric iron. “It’s fast, clean and effective,” she says. “Depending on the time of year, we may apply fly repellant once we’re done.”

Howley recommends that you get to know what healthy calves looks like, their behaviors and actions. “Over time, you will notice the subtlest drooping head position, lack of vigor and energy, and slight reluctance to eat grain or milk as your first warning signs of sickness,” she says. Raising happy, healthy calves is not rocket science, but it might be called an art form: At times, it’s challenging, often enjoyable and eminently rewarding.

This story originally appeared in the July/August issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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