Stockfeeds feature | Learning calf rearing lessons

Ridley adviser Caroline Brown with one of her calves.

I've had the unique opportunity to experience calf rearing from two perspectives: as a farmer and as a professional feed adviser for Ridley Stockfeeds.

I've been rearing calves on our farm for the past 15 years and have tried lots of different methods during this time.

Through trial and error, I've learned what works and what doesn't. These are the lessons I learned along the way.

Early nutrition is crucial

When I first started rearing calves, I quickly learned the importance of getting nutrition right from the start.

Tubing every calf within the first 12 hours helped reduce the incidence of disease.

I didn’t always have the time to test colostrum quality (juggling three kids and a second job tends to do that), but I made sure I used fresh colostrum straight from the cow.

As a feed adviser, I now understand the science behind colostrum quality. Testing is important, but if that’s not an option, using fresh colostrum gets them the best possible start.

The magic of warm milk

I’ve tried just about everything to find the best way to feed calves.

I’ve experimented with cool milk, warm milk, milk powder, and yoghurt. I’ve tried teats, buckets and troughs.

What consistently worked best was warm milk, slightly above body temperature. Newborns latched onto teats more easily if the milk was warm but were far less interested if the milk had cooled off.

I always opt for higher colostrum milk for the younger calves, while the older ones get milk from the vat hose if we need extra.

Clean water is non-negotiable

Keeping water clean was one of the more challenging problems I had on my farm.

Clean water is vital for curbing disease incidence in the calves, but if you placed it near where they wait for milk, they’d immediately make it messy.

Placing water away from the milk feeding area kept it cleaner and reduced contamination.

If calves got enough milk, water wasn’t as critical in the cooler months, but clean water is always essential.

Early introduction to forage and grain

I always have grain and hay available.

Introducing forage and grain early on helps prepare calves for weaning.

I used various types of hay and found cereal hays give the most consistent results, but if they are palatable, pasture hays work well too.

Pellets need to be fresh and should be replaced every day.

I’ve found that adding lucerne chaff or Barastoc calf maximiser meal on top of the pellets enticed them to start eating sooner.

The right bedding makes a difference

I have only ever used wood chips, shavings and rice hulls for bedding.

I found that calves would get sick anytime I switched pens, so keeping all our calves in the same pen until they moved to the paddock reduced their health issues.

Using the pens twice during calving season was a challenge, and we had a higher incidence of scours with the second group.

I found adding Stalosan or lime to the bedding and a fresh foot of chips/shavings on top helped manage disease risk.

That being said, it’s not perfect, so staying vigilant and monitoring calf health is still important, especially with the second group of calves.

Consistency is key

At the end of the day, the biggest lesson I learned is the importance of consistency.

Choose the system that works for you, and whatever system you choose, stick to it and avoid shortcuts.

The health of your calves in those early weeks can affect their productivity for a lifetime.

These lessons formed my approach to calf rearing, both on the farm and as a professional feed adviser.

By sharing these insights, I hope to help you avoid some of the problems I encountered and set your calves up for success from day one.

– Caroline Brown

Ridley Stockfeeds technical sales adviser