Doctor’s Orders: Early feeding of young calves

March 1, 2019

Feeding the young calf

Calves need time for their rumens to develop and become functional.

This organ converts low-quality feeds into usable energy. Liquid milk or milk replacer is required while calves are in the preruminant phase. The rumen requires close to 6 weeks to become functional. Proper feeding helps calves avoid digestive upsets and increases life expectancy.

Liquid feeding

Calves can be raised on whole milk or milk replacer. Whole milk can be fed at the rate of 4 to 6 quarts per day in two or three episodes.

Some tips:

1. Don’t buy the cheapest replacer. It usually contains low-quality milk components or cereal products, which make it less digestible and may cause scours.

2. Examine the product’s protein and fat contents. Dried whole milk contains about 30 percent fat and 25 percent protein. Milk replacers vary in protein and fat levels. A common milk replacer is 20 percent protein and 20 percent fat.

3. For suspected problems with milk replacer, such as symptoms like scours, lethargy, bloat, etc., switch to milk. If the situation improves, try a higher-quality replacer.

4. Feed milk replacer according to manufacturer’s recommendations. A typical amount would be 1 pound per day reconstituted with warm water and fed over two feedings. During winter add a third feeding (1½ pounds total). Feeding at a rate of 10 percent body weight until weaned is a good rule of thumb.

5. Feed nonmedicated milk replacer unless there is a diagnosed issue. Some milk replacers contain a small amount of antibiotics. We generally recommend that nonmedicated milk replacers be used unless there is chronic, diagnosed, bacterial diarrhea that is responsive to medicated milk replacer. Talk with your veterinarian if calves have chronic diarrhea. It might be due to a viral disease that will not respond to antibiotics.

Calf starter and hay

Calf starter should be offered to the calf near the end of the first week and kept fresh by replacing leftover amounts daily. Calf starter helps the rumen become functional.

The calf will only eat a small amount initially. Don’t start with too much. The goal is to have a little left each day.

A good calf starter should contain at least 18 percent crude protein and have about 8 percent to 10 percent fiber. It should be a coarse-textured mixture of a highly palatable product. Don’t buy feed with fine particles. Monitor leftover starters, milk and milk replacer as it will attract flies.

Hay should not be fed until you are ready to wean the calves.


Your goal is to get calves to eat calf starter so they can be weaned. That will not happen without adequate water. Clean water should be available for the calf at all times.

New calves don’t need much water, but will slowly increase their intake. It takes about four units of water for every one unit of starter. It is also important to have water available in winter, but may have to be fed after they have consumed their milk as it will freeze.

Allen Young, a USU Extension dairy specialist, contributed to this column.