Calf rearing systems – a guide

Have you reviewed your calf rearing system in the last couple of years? We suggest you do this regularly, ideally every year, simply because great investments have been made in cattle genetics during the last decade, and yet calf feeding and management practices have lagged behind somewhat, which may in turn be preventing animals from achieving their true genetic potential.

You have an array of calf rearing systems to choose from – individual pens or hutches fed by buckets, or groups fed by machines. It’s a case of selecting the calf rearing system which fits your own bespoke action plan for your farm.

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1. Individual pens or hutches: for example, buckets, buckets with teats.

The pros

  • Calves get individual attention and feeding.
  • Feeding can be controlled very precisely with measured amounts given in one or more daily feeds. Problems are evident if milk feeds are not taken.
  • Exposure to infections, particularly those causing scours, are reduced as mixing is minimal.

The cons

  • Individual pens are very labour intensive and require a large area for relatively small numbers of calves.
  • Socialisation of calves is limited.
  • Calf exercise is also limited.

2. Group rearing: for example, Milkbar, ad-lib systems

The pros

  • Calves can either be fed in troughs, Milkbar or an ad-lib machine, often following on from individual pens.
  • Ad-lib is more like natural feeding, whereas trough will still be done twice a day
  • Calves can socialise more easily and exercise more freely.

The cons

  • Infection spread is easier in larger groups, particularly scours and pneumonias.
  • It can be harder to check individual calves are taking the correct amount of.
  • If calves do become ill, they should be separated during any treatment which then requires individual penning.
  • Feeding machines need to be kept very clean to limit spread of infection between calves, and ensure the tubes don’t get blocked.
  • Ad-lib systems pose difficulties in controlling amounts of milk taken by calves because they feed as often as they like. Too much milk can make weaning harder since it can be difficult to reduce milk intake and encourage concentrate feeding.

3. Group Rearing (programmed feeding): for example, computerised feeders

The pros

  • Far less labour intensive.
  • Calves can socialise more easily and exercise more freely.
  • Calf collars or tags with microchips identify calves individually and control feeding levels precisely. The systems prevent overfeeding – the machine stops delivering milk to calves that have already had their programmed daily ration of milk.
  • Computerised feeding systems identify calves that don’t take in their daily amount and alert the stockman to investigate that particular calf.
  • Computerised feeding systems can deliver all the benefits of machine feeding with some of the individual management benefits of an individual rearing system.

The cons

  • Infection spread is easier in larger groups, particularly scour and pneumonia.
  • The feeding machine needs to be kept very clean to limit spread of infection between calves, and ensure the tubes don’t get blocked.

Visit our website for the latest information and a range of downloadable resources, including our Calf Rearing Principles which covers key areas such as colostrum, hygiene, mixing milk and our mixing rates calculator.

You can also visit our dedicated Youtube channel for useful tips and videos, whichever calf rearing system you decide to use.