Google Maps location for Jimboomba Veterinary Surgery

Jimboomba Veterinary Surgery
1/10 Euphemia St
QLD 4280

1800 217 794
07 5546 9079

Calf Rearing and Feeding

Calf Rearing

Living in Jimboomba and surrounding areas allows the privilege for many residents to own larger livestock such as cattle.  Many people will purchase "cheap" poddy calves at local markets and raise them themselves in the hope of providing themselves with meat at a later time.  Owners, especially first time calf owners, need to be very aware of calf health requirements to avoid costly veterinary treatments and loss of stock.

Our expert cattle Veterinarian, Dr Paul McMahon has outlined a number of key points below for rearing your own calf.


Calves should be kept in a maintained clean, dry well ventilated environment sheltered from rain and the prevailing wind. If penned, the calves need a minimal pen size of 1.5 square metres per calf and have physical/tactile access to other calves. Six to 8 inches of sand is preferable bedding to provide best drainage and minimal environmental contamination. Sand base should be replaced at regular intervals prior to new calves being introduced.

Adequate and continuous supply of good quality fresh water must be available to calves at all times, as 4l of milk maybe insufficient fluid intake particularly in hot humid summer conditions.

Ideally calf pens should be constructed with a solid wall the floor to a minimum 1-1.5 metre in height. There should be a gap of at least 1 metre from the top of the wall to the shed roof to enable adequate ventilation whilst protecting against chilling from prevailing wind. Closed sheds are not ideal as ammonia and other fumes accumulate to excessive levels. Chemical and particulate inflammation of the lungs can predispose calves to bacterial pneumonia particularly if the calf’s immune system has previously been compromised by dehydration associated with an episode of scours.


Calves are born as pre ruminants, essentially digesting their primary food source, milk, in the abomasum or fourth stomach. Milk consists predominantly of sugars,  animal protein and fats requiring digestion by enzymes produced in the abomasum and small intestine. In constrast older cattle’s primary feed source is plant material containing starch and other more complex carbohydrates and fibre in addition to protein of plant origin. This material requires digestion by bacterial fermentation in the, the inital three of the four stomachs in the ruminant digestive system.  This means calves have different dietary needs than older cattle.

By weaning age, calves need to have developed from an essentially single stomach digestive system to a ruminant or 4 stomach digestive system capable of sufficient bacterial fermentation of plant  material, ( grain or forage) to provide sufficient nutrients for their growth and maintenance of good body condition.

The period calves are fed milk replacers is the period of greatest risk in calves developing gastrointestinal disturbances and associated systemic disease. Hand rearing calves requires providing appropriate nutrition to efficiently effect the calf’s transition from a pre ruminant to a ruminant in the most appropriate time frame. Ideally the aim should be that the calf's digestive system should be sufficiently developed by 6- 10 weeks of age to enable it to thrive in the absence of milk in its diet.  This means we should aim to have calves weaned by 6-10 weeks of age.

Milk ideally is digested by pepsinogens, lipases produced in the gastric environment of the fourth stomach. Whilst undeveloped calves do have a rumen cannot produce enzymes required to digest milk. As such if milk were to arrive in the rumen it cannot be digested by enzymes rather it would putrify under bacterial fermentation producing an inflamed rumen, rumenitis  with associated bloat pain, and discomfort. Animals suffering abdominal discomfort are unlikely to eat, furthering worsening the calf's’ health.

Its very important that milk fed calves are fed via a bottle and teat rather than allowing them to drink from a bucket.  This is because the action of sucking by the calf normally stimulates the closure of a structure called the oesophageal groove. Closure of this groove delivers milk directly from the oesophagus to the "4th stomach" and bypassing the rumen avoiding putrifying and debilitating rumenitis typical of the “poddy” calf. 

Short chain carbohydrates such as starch are fermented by bacterial processes on the internal surface of the rumen or rumenal lining. Exposing the calf to grain stimulates the development of internal rumenal folds. Increasing the internal surface area of the rumen increases its ability to efficiently utilise grains etc to maintain its body weight. Hence provision of hay and grain to calves accelerates the rumens development to efficiently utilise all components of a plant diet and this ability to derive the most benefit from a given plant source remains with the calf for the rest of its life.

 It needs to be remembered that calves suckling cows normally have access to a milk compent in their diet for 7-8 months. This effectively provides a high protein diet in excess of 20% necessary for muscle and skeletal development in a growing animal.  Most hays  have protein levels ups to 14%. Similarly grains generally contain no more than 12-14% protein. If grain and hay are to quickly replace milk in the diet of the calf the grain must be supplemented with a richer protein source such as cotton seed meal or canola. Typically calf pellets are protein supplemented grains with a protein concentration exceeding 20%. Feeding sufficient quantities of calf pellets to calves provides sufficient protein intake to enable removal of milk from the diet by 6-10 weeks of age.

In summary

  • calves should be fed high quality milk replacer at the rate of 2 litres twice daily for the first 4 weeks of life. The calf should suck milk replacer through a teat and calfeteria.
  • to stimulate rumen development the calf should have access to calf pellets and hay from the first 2-3 days of life.

By 4 weeks of age the rumen should have developed sufficiently to enable milk to be reduced to 2 litres once daily with total milk withdrawal by 6-10 weeks of age. As a rule of thumb calves should have access to calf pellets at a kg rate of 50-60% of their age in months. That is a 3 month calf should be receiving 1.5 kg of calf pellets per day. Hay should always be available to the calf.


 Above is an example of a "calfeteria" - ideal for poddy calves.