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How to maximize milk production at your farm

Ever wondered why your production at your farm is not to expected level.Foundation is always the key to success.A calf is always the future of your farm so invest in it. Here i will show you step by step on how you can raise your calf from day one to being a mature cow.Feel free to leave a comment.



The calf is the foundation of the future dairy herd which signifies the importance of proper calf rearing. Selection of replacements for culled cows can only be effective if good replacement heifers are available and in enough numbers to allow for a more rigid selection.  A good feeding and management programme will result in lower death rate (mortality), replacement heifers that start production early and fast growth resulting in rapid genetic improvement.

Management before birth

As calf management begins before birth, a few days before the calf is born, the pregnant cow is transferred to a maternity paddock, which should be near the homestead (for closer observation), well watered and free from physical objects. The signs of imminent parturition (calving) include filling of udder with milk and is turgid, vulva swollen with a string of mucus hanging from vagina. Insemination records can also be used to estimate the expected calving date.

Management at calving

After the calf is born, ensure that calf is breathing. Should breathing not commence, the calf should be assisted (remove mucus from nostrils and if breathing does not start hold calf by hind legs upside down and swing several times). The umbilical cord should be disinfected using disinfectant (iodine or copper sulphate solution). If the calf is unable to suckle, it should be assisted and be allowed to suckle colostrum from the dam at will during the first week.  Any excess colostrum should be milked and stored or fed fresh to other calves. During the second week of life and thereafter, the calf should be separated from dam and fed by hand.

Feeding of the calf 

The primary concern in rearing the newborn calf is to ensure it remains healthy. Feeding management should also be directed at addressing nutrient requirements and encouraging rumen development.

While designing a calf feeding program, the aim should be to reduce mortality (death) rate while maintaining a growth rate of about 400-500g/day. The growth rate will vary with breeds, for the bigger breeds the aim should be to wean calves at 3 months at approximately 80kg body weight.

Calf Feeding Programs

While developing a calf feeding program the following factors should be considered.

  1. The calf has low immunity at birth and therefore must be given colostrum. The colostrum has antibodies that protect the calf against diseases the mother has been exposed to and their absorption is highest within 12 hours after birth and very low after 24 hours. As such the calf must suckle colostrum immediately after birth and if necessary it should be given using a nipple bottle. The calf depends on the colostrum antibodies for about 2 weeks when it develops its own immunity. If new animals are introduced into the herd just before calving, it may be necessary to vaccinate them against the common diseases so that they can develop antibodies and pass then on to their new born.
  2. The newborn calf is dependent on milk for nutrition and growth in its early life as the rumen is not functional. The suckling reflex forms a fold (groove) which serves as a pipe for delivering milk straight from the esophagus to abomasum  in young calves (bypassing fore- stomachs). Therefore, young calves should only be fed on liquid diets as the groove will not allow solids to pass.
  3. Calves secrete high amounts of lactase enzyme (breaks down lactose in milk to glucose and galactose to supply energy). The other carbohydrate digesting enzymes are low and therefore, milk which has a high lactose level should be fed to the calves. During formulation of milk replacers, the energy source should be milk lactose. Calves have no sucrase enzyme, and should not be fed on sucrose (ordinary sugar).
  4. Since the rumen is not functional, the calf cannot synthesize the B vitamins and they must be supplied in the diet. The diet of the newborn calf should contain milk proteins since enzymes to break down complex proteins do not develop until 7-10 days after birth.
  5. Introduce calf to solid feed

As calf is introduced to solid feed, the rumen starts developing and the calf can be weaned as soon as it can consume enough dry feed (1.5% of body weight). It should be noted that dry feed should be introduced early, as solid feed is required for rumen development. Grain based diets promote faster growth of rumen papillae (which promotes rumen function) compared to roughages. 

Calf Feeding Methods 

After the first week during which the calf is left with the dam, several methods can be used for feeding depending on ease and convenience.

1. Single suckling        

The calf is separated with the mother but during milking it is brought to suckle. The amount of milk the calf consumes is difficult to quantify. Some farmers will allow the calf to suckle one quarter. This method is rarely used in commercial dairies. The disadvantage is that if the calf is not present, then the cow may not let down all the milk since milk let down process is initiated by the presence of the calf. This method is the best in terms of hygiene as the calf gets clean milk at body temperature.

2. Foster mother or multiple suckling

In farms where several cows give birth at the same time, one cow can be assigned to a number of calves depending on milk production. The calves suckle in turns ensuring that each calf only suckles the designated quarter. This method is not practical in small scale farms.

3. Nipple suckling

A plastic nipple is attached to a clean bottle filled with milk and the calf is trained on how to suckle. An alternative is to attach a nipple on a short plastic hose pipe and insert the same into a bucket. The calf is then trained on how to suckle.

4. Bottle feeding

The milk is placed in a clean bottle and the calf is fed directly from the bottle. This method is tedious and slow if many calves are to be fed. There is a high likelihood of milk going to the lungs via trachea.

5. Bucket feeding

This is the most commonly used method and milk is placed into a bucket and the calf is trained to drink (place finger in the milk and as calf suckles your finger it takes in milk). Stainless steel buckets, where available, should be used for hygienic reasons as plastic buckets are difficult to clean.

Whatever method is used, clean equipment should be used at all times

NB: Sick calves should always be fed last to minimize cross contamination. Attempts should be made to feed milk at body temperature especially during the cold season.

Feeding during first week

Calves should be allowed to suckle so as to obtain colostrum from their dams. If mother dies at calving or is unable to produce milk due to some condition, artificial or frozen colostrum or a contemporary mother (one that has given birth at the same time) can be used mostly referred to as a foster dam.

Artificial colostrum

Colostrum serves two functions in new born calves, as a source of antibodies and also a rich source of nutrients (has high amount of energy and protein compared to milk). 

Artificial colostrum does not supply the antibodies but is a good source of nutrients for new born calf.

Example composition of artificial colostrum: one egg (protein source) + half litre fresh warm water + half litre whole milk (source of lactose and milk protein) + one teaspoonful castor oil (energy) + one teaspoonful of cod liver oil (energy).

Feeding during 2nd week to one month:

Calves should be fed milk at approximately 10% of their body weight. Milk can be mixed with other dairy products (whey or skim milk) at this stage and should be fed at body temperature. 

Commercial milk replacers can be fed at this stage if they are available and cheaper as they would result in increased profits to the farmer and increase milk for human consumption.

The milk replacer should contain 22% protein (if all protein is from milk sources) or 24% when some plant protein is included (on DM basis).The calf should be introduced to high quality pre-starters at this time.

Calf feeds

Preserved colostrum

High yielding cows may produce more colostrum than the calf can consume which can be preserved and fed later. The colostrum can be preserved by several methods. The most ideal is freezing but this may not be possible in small-scale farms without electricity supply.  In such cases, the colostrum may be preserved through natural fermentation (storing at room temperature). Before feeding the preserved colostrum, it should be mixed with warm water at the ratio of 2 parts colostrum to 1 part water.

Milk replacers

These are commercial products manufactured to resemble milk and are mostly used when there is no milk to feed the calf e.g. where a cow is sick or died during calving. They are also used when demand and price of milk is high. Preserved colostrum should be used as much as possible before a farmer decides to use milk replacer. Milk replacers are always of lower quality than whole milk and should only be fed if they are cheaper.


A pre-starter is a high quality calf feed, which should be low in fibre and is almost similar to milk replacer and is usually fed during the second and third week. It is fed in a dry pelleted form or as a meal. It should be used early to stimulate calves to eat dry feed to enhance rumen development. It is estimated that it takes rumen growth about three weeks after the calf starts eating a handful of dry feed, thus the earlier they start the better.

Calf starter

The starter contains slightly higher fibre content compared with the pre-starter. At this stage the calf is consuming little milk and is in transition to becoming a ruminant. 


Calves should be offered only high quality forages early in life and supplemented with concentrates (calf starter). If hay is used, it should be of high quality, fine texture, mixed with legumes and fed ad lib. If they are on pasture, it would be best to always graze calves ahead of adults to control parasites. Some of the common roughages offered to calves are sweet potato vines and freshly harvested and wilted Lucerne.


Calves should be offered fresh water in addition to milk. Lack of drinking water slows down digestion and development of the rumen, and hence the longer it takes before calves can be safely weaned.

Between three weeks and weaning, calves’ water consumption usually increases and should be available all the time.

Table 1. Sample of a feeding schedule for calves.

Age of calf (days)   Milk kg/day   Total Milk (kg)   Calf starter (kg/d)   Roughage  
1 to 7   Colostrum           
8 to 21   5   70   Handful     
22 to 42   6   126   0.5   Yes  
43 to 56   5   70   0.5   Yes  
57 to 63   4   28   1   Yes  
64 to 77   3   42   1   Yes  
78 to 84   Wean the calf   2      14      1.5      Yes     
Total      350   55     

This programme should result in growth rate of approximately 400-500 grams per day.


Weaning is the withdrawal of milk or milk replacer and the calf becomes fully dependant on other feeds. Traditionally, most dairy calves are weaned based on age

12 weeks being the most common. Early weaning is possible if more milk is fed and calves introduced to pre-starter and starter early in life. 

To minimize stress, weaning should be done gradually. The twice a day milk feeding should be reduced to once a day then to once every other day to allow the calf’s digestive system to adjust to the new diet.

Criteria that have been used to determine weaning time include when calf attains twice the birth weight, when the calf can consume 1.5% of its bodyweight of dry feed and age of calf.  

Early weaning (5 to <8 weeks) may be adopted to reduce the milk feeding period and labour required for calf rearing. This will require a specific feeding program using low levels of milk and high energy, high protein concentrates, preferably pelleted to stimulate rumen development. Liquid milk or milk replacer is reduced from 3 weeks of age to encourage the calf to consume and maximize intake of dry feeds. 

Calf Housing

 Housing of calves is an important aspect of calf management. Calves are housed for several reasons, the most important being protection from adverse weather conditions and predators, avoid internal and external parasites and control feeding and management.

A calf pen should be constructed where possible from locally available materials. It should be constructed to:

  • Allow approximately 2 m2 (1.2 X 1.5m) space per calf
    • Be well drained or bedded
    • Be well lighted (artificial or natural)
    • Be well ventilated
    • Strong to stand predator invasion.

Calves can be housed permanently indoor until weaning time when they are turned to pasture or semi-indoor where they are housed only at night.

The calf house can be permanent or temporary and movable. Permanent houses should be constructed such that they are easy to clean when a new calf is introduced. Temporary houses are moved from one location to another when new calf moves in.


A calf house floor can be on ground level or raised. If at ground level, the floor should be made of easily cleanable material (e.g. concrete) and should be bedded using straw. The sides can be made of concrete or wooden. The raised pens should have a slatted floor. They are made of timber spaced at 1 inch to allow urine and faeces to fall on the ground. The house should be at least 1 foot from the ground. 

In big dairies, calves can be housed individually or in groups. Individual housing is recommended during the first one month. When not possible then group housing can be done though there are several disadvantages including:

  • Difficulty in feeding and management.
  • Disease control is difficult.
  • Fights among calves – decreased growth rate.
  • Calves suckling each other which could lead to ingested hair (tend to form hair balls), blind teats and removal of disinfectant from umbilical cord.

Raised calf pen

 Suitable for newborn calves. This type of calf pen is suitable for a zero-grazing unit. It is placed inside the roofed and walled section of the unit. It may be permanent or movable.

Individual pens for calves from birth to 2 to 3 months of age are often built with an elevated slatted floor. This floor will ensure that the calf is always dry and clean. 

The required minimum internal dimensions for an individual calf pen are 1200 by 800mm for a pen where the calf is kept up to two weeks of age, 1200 by l000mm where the calf is kept to 6 to 8 weeks of age and 1500 by 1200mm where the calf is kept from 6 to 14 weeks of age. Three sides of the pens should be tight to prevent contact with other calves and to prevent draughts. Draughts through the slatted floor may be prevented by covering the floor with litter until the calf is at least one month of age. 

The front of the pen should be made so that the calf can be fed milk, concentrates and water easily from buckets or a trough fixed to the outside of the pen and so that the calf can be moved out of the pen without lifting. 

General management Practices


Male calves are castrated to prevent unwanted mating where male and female cattle are reared together in one herd. In addition, castrated males are easier to handle and they produce better quality meat.  

Castration can be done by using an elastrator ring, burdizzo or open castration using a knife.

Knife castration: is the only completely safe method to sterilize male animals and can be done at any age by a qualified veterinarian. With this method of castration there is always a danger that the wound can become infected and the necessary precautions must be taken.

Elastrator rings: The rubber ring is applied around the neck of the scrotal sack using the special instrument designed for this purpose. The testicles must be in the scrotal sack distal (away from the body of the calf) to the elastrator ring. To minimize pain when using the rubber ring method of castration, they must be applied within three days of birth.

A strong rubber ring is placed around the top of the testicles thus cutting off blood supply. The testicles die off slowly.

The burdizzo: This is an instrument used to cut off the blood supply to the testicles, causing cell death of the testicular tissues resulting in degeneration of the testicles. The best time to apply the burdizzo is three to four weeks after birth when the spermatic cords can be felt. 

The burdizzo is applied to each spermatic cord separately in such a way that the blood supply to the testicles is damaged, while circulation to the scrotal sack remains intact. Gangrene can set in where blood circulation to the scrotum is lost. To achieve these objectives, the burdizzo is applied to the individual spermatic cords at opposite sides of the scrotum, leaving a central area free for blood to circulate or applying the burdizzo at different levels on opposite sides of the scrotum. 


Horned cows are not only dangerous to people working with them, but cause a great deal of damage to hides. Dehorning also improves the animal looks.

Dehorning can be done by several methods. 

Hot iron: Electric, gas or fire-heated iron is the most common in calves (4 to 6 weeks). When using this method, ensure that the killing of horn bud is effective otherwise the horn will grow again. Hot iron dehorning can be done with ease up to the age 3 months (while the dehorning iron still fits over the bud comfortably), thereafter horn growth is fairly rapid, making surgical removal necessary.

Surgical method:

Use of saw or cutting wire: In older animals, surgical procedures must be used, especially if horns have grown to a length of 2 cm or more. 

The removal of larger horns causes a great deal of pain and anaesthetics should be used with dehorning and steps taken to prevent bleeding. Blood attracts flies and blow-fly strike causes serious problems in open wounds. Once horns have grown very large, removal of the horns exposes the hollows in the skull and these must be closed to prevent infection. 


Identification of calves should be done immediately after birth to allow efficient and proper recording. Identification can be through various methods:

  1. Branding

Hot iron – brand for a short time on the legs so as not to spoil skin. This is permanent but not common in dairy cattle.

  • Ear marking
  • Ear notching – cut part of ear using an agreed code. This mark is permanent but exposes cow to infection.
  • Ear tattooing – difficult to read and does not work in dark animals.

Calf health 

Most of the common health problems experienced by calves are due to poor management. Diligent feeding management and housing is therefore essential to ensure calf health is maintained. Some of the common problems associated with management practices are diarrhoea and pneumonia

Common Diseases

Scours (diarrhoea)

Scours could be caused by nutritional disorders, viruses or bacteria. Digestive upsets leading to scours are a major cause of death in young calves. The problem can however be minimized through: 

  • Ensuring calves receive adequate colostrum within 6 hours of birth and therefore acquire some natural immunity. 
    • Feeding the correct amount of milk.
    • Early recognition, isolation and treatment of scouring calves  iv) Maintenance of hygiene and cleanliness of feeding utensils and the environment 
    • Not rearing calves continually in pens, dirt yards or small paddocks that become heavily contaminated. Paddock rotation will help prevent disease. 
    • Separation of sick animals to avoid cross infection. 

Close observation of calves at feeding to identify scouring animals as soon as possible for remedial treatment will prevent dehydration and secondary disease leading to chronic ill-thrift and mortality. 

Most scour incidents can be treated simply by:

  • Feeding water with salts.  
  • Avoiding milk for 1-2 feeds. Give fresh water, concentrates and forage. 

Antibiotics should not be used to treat scours resulting from over feeding or digestive upsets. Blood scours (mostly caused by coccidia) require veterinary treatment and management changes to improve hygiene.

NB: Always consult with your veterinarian whenever your calves are sick.


Judy Vanessa

Judy Vanessa is an accomplished explorer,a passionate animal health extension practitioner and author. She loves writing about farming articles in various sectors.

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