Raising Cattle with a Bit of Forethought One Key to Calf Health

Before raising calves, consider all the factors before starting in.

Calf Lying on Straw

Clean straw makes excellent bedding for a young calf.

iStockphoto.com/Cynthia Baldauf

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No doubt about it, newborn calves are cute – and their diminutive size makes them easy to like and less intimidating to handle than adult cattle. But calves are complex little creatures, and successfully raising them without their mom is a bit of an art. Whether you’re considering raising calves for meat, milk, pets or as future pasture trimmers, your project will be much more relaxing and rewarding with some forethought and plenty of planning. 

Of breeds and bulls

With scores of cattle breeds out there, it’s probably best to choose your calf based on your specific goals and what’s available in your area, and if you just want to raise some cattle for meat, a beef breed is generally best. Beef calves will bulk up relatively quickly and develop into a marketable animal more readily – but newborn beef calves are often difficult to come by. Dairy calves tend to be lighter and less expensive but will take more time to put on the muscle if you’re planning to butcher. For best success with raising a calf for milk, you should choose a dairy breed – be sure you buy heifer calves and expect them to be more expensive than their brothers.

You’ll have up to three gender choices when seeking a newborn calf. In most instances, you can choose bull (intact male), steer (castrated male) and heifer calves. Bull calves will grow faster than the others, but will be harder to handle as they grow older; mature bulls are a force to be reckoned with during breeding season, so unless you’re planning on breeding the animal, it’s a good idea to ask the seller to handle the castration before you take delivery to save yourself the trouble and/or expense. Steer calves grow almost as quickly as bull calves and are as easy to handle as heifers (sometimes easier).

If your goal is to create a breeding herd of your own or to eventually have a milk cow, then you’ll want to choose a heifer. Keep in mind that the best heifers – both beef and dairy – are not usually those offered for sale as newborn animals because the farmers and ranchers use these animals to replenish their herds or offer them to other farmers and ranchers to enhance their herds. 

Herd mentality

Cattle are herd animals so you’ll want to bring at least two newborn calves to your place; three would be better for herd dynamics and in case one dies (the stress of being taken away from their mothers causes significant stress), the other will have company. Be sure that the calves have had sufficient time with their mothers to get a good dose of colostrum, which will improve their immune systems and get their digestive tracts moving.

Since the fundamental basis of the dairy farm is lactating cows, many dairies have a steady supply of newborn calves to get rid of. In many instances, you can negotiate a very good price if you agree to buy two or three calves at a time. For a dairy, newborn calves only get in the way of producing saleable milk – or take up precious resources by way of milk replacer and labor. In some years, dairy farms give calves away – in others they may charge up to about $75 per calf, depending on the region.

You can purchase older calves from farmers and ranchers as they are available. These animals will be generally less vulnerable to disease, but they will be larger and more difficult to handle. Be sure to check on the animal’s vaccination history so your vet can plan an appropriate ongoing strategy.

A livestock auction is another place to purchase calves, but that environment is even more stressful for the calves, and you have no guarantee on health or that the animals were handled carefully. This avenue is best used by experienced calf buyers; be sure to consult your vet for a quick evaluation on the way home to ensure the best chance of survival for the new calves. 

Shelter from the storm

New calves require a bit more in the way of housing than older calves and adult cattle – it’s crucial that the calves initially be kept out of the wind and cold. I purchased mine in November – not a real intelligent season to start calves, but the dairy gave me a good price when I took three. We built an enclosure inside our barn, making sure they had lots of room to run around, plenty of fresh air, and were snug and out of the weather.

Dusty barns are not always the best places for cattle though – don’t coop your calves up any more than necessary. Even in the middle of winter, I periodically put mine outdoors for exercise and fresh air. It's amazing to see how far and fast these little guys run at just a few weeks old.

Be sure to line the calves’ indoor quarters with a thick layer of clean bedding. Sawdust is convenient and easy to keep clean, but straw and hay also work well. Avoid moldy hay if possible.

If you receive your calves during particularly cold weather, you might also set up a heat lamp. Take care with stray bedding and that the lamp cannot fall onto flammable materials to avoid fire. Be sure that the calves have sufficient space to move away from the heat. 

Keep it clean

This is critical. Scoop out the wet spots, manure, spills, etc., at least twice a day. Don’t hesitate to clean water buckets and feed pans daily as well. While you are taking care of the housecleaning, spend time watching the calves for any signs of chronic cough, listlessness or diarrhea (scours). Respiratory problems can easily develop in a young calf, and a dusty, damp barn escalates the problem. It won’t be long before you recognize what is normal in these little critters, and there’s nothing like the routine of chores to keep you all connected. 

Bovine buffet

For the first month and until they’re eating a pound of calf starter pellets a day, milk replacer is the most important (and most expensive) item you'll be feeding the calves. You should expect to feed bottles two to three times per day. Your feed store will have the all the supplies, including bottles, nipples and powdered milk replacer.

Don’t skimp on good food. Your calves depend on your choices.

Remember, it’s only for one month or so – something to keep in mind as you trudge to the barn loaded down with bottles. After checking with the vet as well as the dairy owner, I ended up feeding a bit less than the milk replacer bag recommended. A too-rich diet can cause diarrhea.

Your vet also can advise whether to get the medicated or non-medicated milk replacer.

Bottle feeding can be fun. But once the calves get older, they get more energetic, demanding and even rude – knocking the bottle out of your hands, shoving on each other and, in general, making a huge mess out of eating.

We built a board to hang the bottles on (hangers available at the feed store), then hinged another board to drop and clamp down on it so the bottles could not be dislodged. We could feed by standing outside the pen. This saved lots of spilled milk and bruised body parts.

Be sure to keep plenty of water available. Even though they’re drinking a lot of milk, you’ll be surprised at how they’ll empty the water bucket.

I also provided a salt block for necessary minerals and to give them something else to slurp on.

Free-choice grass hay can be provided from the very beginning – be sure it isn’t moldy. Some experts suggest starting with grass hay and adding alfalfa later. I used what I had, an alfalfa/grass mix. The calves wasted a lot, but I just tossed it to the other animals or used it as mulch.

I provided a bit of new hay twice a day. Remember, you’re trying to keep your calves healthy. This is not the time to be frugal and insist they eat all their hay before getting more. 

Deciding to doctor

Despite your best efforts, some of your calves will probably get sick. It just happens. Scours is the biggest problem, and indications are listlessness and the manure becoming gray or white and very runny. The calves usually smear it on their tails so it’s easy to tell which one needs medication.

One suggested treatment is sulfa pills available at feed stores, but be sure to pick up a balling gun. Known also as a bolus gun or a pill gun, this device looks like a big, plastic or metal syringe. You stick the pill in one end, pull back the plunger, insert the pill-end into the animal’s throat, and push the plunger. I like to hold the baby’s head up a bit, after I remove the gun, and stroke the throat to ensure the pill goes down and won’t be spit out later.

Pneumonia is another common calf disease. Your calves may begin to cough and act listless and uninterested in their feed. You’ll need to see your vet quickly for medication. Be sure to take the calf’s temperature, because the vet will need to know the reading and will instruct you on how/when to doctor. My experience has been that the calves recover rather quickly with timely antibiotic intervention.

Make sure the sick calf gets his milk. You’ve got to keep energy flowing into his little body in order for him to fight off any disease. Sometimes you’ll end up feeding him as he’s lying down, but be patient. Any amount is beneficial, and he’ll usually be perkier the next time.

In the event that you lose a calf, you need to dispose of the remains responsibly. Depending on your location, you might be allowed to bury the body or burn it. In some places you can call a rendering company, and for a fee they will collect the remains. Check with your local extension office to learn about proper mortality disposal for your region. Being prepared for this inevitability beats worrying about “what ifs.” 

Out to pasture

After about a month, your calves should be ready to give up the milk and live on hay/pasture and calf starter (grain). Throughout the first month, you should have been calling your calves when bringing out feed. This is an excellent way to train them to come when called – so handy when out in the pasture – or, God forbid, they escape! Works every time.

You and your calves have survived. Your long hours of preparing milk, lugging warm bottles, cleaning, doctoring and worrying are over. The calves are in the field and practically self-sufficient.