Many dairy herds in NI are autumn and winter calving which creates a great resource for anyone looking to rear calves and have them off milk by turnout in the spring.

For many young people looking to start up their own farming enterprise, rearing dairy calves is a popular option. To run a profitable calf rearing business, purchasing calves capable of high levels of weight gain is crucial.

Below are some tips for a first-time buyer.

1. Choosing healthy calves

Arrive at the mart early and get a close look at the animals before the sale starts. Look for calves that are alert, have clear eyes, no nasal discharge and are breathing normally. Choose calves with a clean, shiny coat and feel their naval – it should be dry and be free of hard lumps.

2. Calf type & weight

Calves will either be a beef cross or be from 100% dairy breeding. Beef calves have better conformation, higher growth rates and will be worth more when sold. But they will cost more to buy. Regardless of calf type, buy animals that are at least two weeks old. They will be stronger and easier to start on calf feeders.

3. Calf arriving on farm

Once calves arrive on farm, unload into straw bedded pens with good ventilation. Offer fresh hay or straw, along with some concentrate. Keep a close eye when feeding milk. If calves are slow to drink, they are likely to be ill and early treatment increases the chance of a full recovery.

4. Feeding the calf

Feed a good quality milk powder with at least 23% crude protein, mixed at a minimum rate of 125g per litre of water. For calves around three weeks old, start off with three litres of milk daily. Build up to eight litres/day by seven weeks old. From eight weeks old, start reducing milk levels and wean by 12 weeks old at a target liveweight of 120kg.

Offer meal from the start, along with straw or hay and fresh water to stimulate rumen development. Calves should be eating at least 1kg/day of meal by weaning.

5. Post-weaning

Once weaned, continue to offer meal and straw, gradually introducing silage. Calves can slip out to grass in spring once weather permits.

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