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.

RLH Volac33977

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.

Cold weather – are your calves at risk?



Young calves are very susceptible to low temperatures. They are on highly digestible feed and are not yet ruminating so less heat is generated by digestion.

During their first week of life and when temperatures plummet to less than 15°C, they’ll start using energy from feed to keep warm. High risk calves – those with a difficult birth and twins, will feel cold at higher temperatures.

By their fourth week, they’ll be more robust and won’t feel the cold until about 0°C. However, high moisture levels and draughts will dramatically increase their susceptibility to cold stress. Draughts of just 5mph will make calves feel 8-10°C colder.


Cold stress and its impact

  • Energy is diverted from growth to maintaining body temperature
  • Growth rates will fall and calves will become more susceptible to disease

How to prevent COLD STRESS

Have a plan for when cold stress is likely to happen, that’s when the ambient temperature drops below 15°C, or at a higher temperature for high-risk calves.

1. CALF Feeding

  • Make sure every calf receives adequate quality colostrum
  • Step up energy intake; this can be done by increasing the amount of milk offered per day, see table 1. Increasing the oil content of the milk replacer from 16% to 20% has a negligible effect on daily energy intake

Table 1: Increase in energy supplied by increasing calf milk powder oil content or feed rate


  • Increase the level of milk solids by 100g per day for every 10°C temperature drop below 20°C to maintain growth rates. See figure 1.

Fig 1: Additional calf milk replacer required to maintain growth rates in cold weather, for a calf aged 0 to three weeks or older than three weeks of age:


2. General housing considerations

  • Reduce cold drafts whilst maintaining adequate ventilation. Provide effective barriers to drafts at calf-level and places for the calves to shelter – plastic and timber are better insulating materials than concrete and steel
  • Put in place a system to drain moisture
  • Ensure bedding is kept clean and dry and provide plenty of deep straw bedding; it provides them with a great deal of insulation and reduces body heat loss
  • Keep bedding dry and clean – much of the insulation value of bedding is lost when it is wet

3. Specific intervention measures

  • Provide calf jackets
  • Provide an external heat source close to calves

Finally, calves born on very cold days take longer to stand and suckle so they may not receive enough colostrum to ensure adequate transfer of immunity. Make sure they each receive a minimum three litres or six pints within three hours of birth – use a teated bottle or stomach tube.