Calf nutrition: Building block for the future

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Editor's Note: This Dairy Calf & Heifer Association Tip of the Week is brought to you by the Beef Checkoff.


The amount and quality of colostrum a calf receives within the first hours of life is the single most important management factor affecting the animal's well-being, growth, performance and profitability for the first six months of life and beyond.

Aside from being the only way to provide calves with necessary antibodies for immunity, colostrum also provides the necessary key vitamins A, D, and E, which help develop the immune system and set the stage for growth. Colostrum also contains antioxidants, a high fat content, white blood cells and essential amino acids - that are all very important to the initial health and growth of the calf.

Here are some tips for calf nutrition from birth to weaning:

  • For colostrum, current best management practice is to feed 2 to preferably 4 quarts of colostrum within the first one to two hours of life, followed by two more feedings within the first 18 hours. The higher amount - 4 quarts - ensures that enough grams of antibodies are received by the majority of calves when the quality of the colostrum is unknown or mediocre. 
  • Reserve "first-milking" colostrum for first feedings of newborns as the concentrations of vitamins, nutrients and antibodies will be highest. 
  • Calves should be eating starter grain three weeks before weaning. That's about how long it takes for the starter grain to develop the rumen to where the calf is able to meet its nutritional requirements from dry feed.
  • Calves should be eating 2 to 2.5 quarts (or pounds) of starter grain daily before weaning.
  • During adverse weather conditions, calves will require increased nutrition.

Monitoring and supplying proper nutrition is essential in determining how the calves will grow, develop and perform later. For more information on calf nutrition visit the National Dairy Beef Quality Assurance manual, and for more details on colostrum management, visit Gold Standards I.


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