Calves are the dairy cows of tomorrow

Most likely the primary focus of attention are the dairy cows, however the younger generations should also have their place in the daily routines. Young calves need enough attention; they need feed of excellent quality. The concentrate supplied should be of the correct kind and sufficient. Keep in mind that in the long term, correctly reared young stock will guarantee a good return.


So how can we take care of our calves in the best possible way? Every single calf needs some basic requirements to grow to a sustainable dairy cow. A good start to the rearing period begins with the smooth birth of a healthy calf. Second to that you need to be aware that calves enter the world without resistance; they have no antibodies in their blood. Therefore colostrum is of high importance. 


The newborn calf must get its resistance from the colostrum. Antibodies in the colostrum ensure that pathogens are less likely to make the calf ill (see figure 1). This is why it is important to provide colostrum quickly, often and in plentiful quantity. Try to provide 4 liters of colostrum in the first hours after birth. After each hour, the absorption capacity of the intestines for the antibodies is reduced by almost 10%. Colostrum must be given under hygienic circumstances. Always collect and feed colostrum in clean, disinfected buckets. It is recommended that you use clean, separate boots and clothing in the calf rearing area.

Figure 1 Immunity process of the calf

Milk replacer or cow’s milk?

On the third or fourth day after birth, the switch can be made to milk replacer or normal (pasteurized) cow’s milk; either may be given. We know that many dairy farmers give their surplus milk to calves and that this is an easy way of working, however, milk replacer meets the nutritional needs of the calf better. In addition to the necessary nutrients, milk replacer also contains vitamins and minerals, which are important for healthy growth. 

From abomasum to the development of the rumen

The stomach system of young calves is small and undeveloped. The abomasum (where the milk is digested) of newborn calves has a volume of 1.5 to 2 liters. The rumen has a volume of just 0.75 liters. At the age of 8 weeks, both the rumen and the abomasum can contain 6 liters. The growth rate of the rumen at 3 to 8 weeks is greater than the growth rate of the calf itself. At the end of the milk phase the rumen has enlarged to a volume of 14 liters, while the abomasum can contain 7 liters.

Figure 2 Rumens of the young calf and the mature cow

Roughage stimulates rumen development

In addition to milk, calves soon adapt to concentrates and hay, which should be coarse and of a good quality. Calves gradually learn to eat solid feed until they are eating 1.5 to 2 kg a day after weaning. The rumen wall of young calves contains very little rumen papillae. The rumen is stimulated through the feeding of coarse roughage, the right kind of concentrates and energy. The more the animals absorb, the easier it is to reduce the milk phase. The transition to solid feeds is smoother if the rumen is well-developed and healthy. In addition, fresh water must not be overlooked. It is advisable to supply fresh water when the calf is one week old. Calves require 10% of their body weight in water every day. Especially on warm days, the need for water is greater than the few liters of milk the calves receive. In the winter period, the need for energy for calves in the milk phase is higher. Due to the cold, more energy is needed to provide the calf her basic needs.


During the first few days of their lives, calves should be housed in individual calf units or in igloos, depending on the capacity of the farm and the climate. After 3 to 10 days in the single pen, the calves are able to fend for themselves and can be moved into the group (with a minimum of 1.5 m2 space per calf). This is where the animals learn to socialize and, above all, they have more room to develop their frame and muscles through running and jumping. In group housing, calves can easily be fed through a Lely Calm automatic calf feeder. This keeps the animals healthy because they are fed several times a day, and the quality of the milk is constant and at the right temperature.

To summarize

As calves are the dairy cows of tomorrow they need enough and correct attention. So make sure you treat them accordingly.

  • Include the calves within your daily routines.
  • When checking your cows, check your calves as well.
  • Ensure sufficient colostrum of good quality, right after birth.
  • Consider feeding the calves automatically via the Lely Calm.
  • Ensure proper clean and dry housing and bedding.