Cattle production: Advice on buying young calves


By Digital team | 9 October 2018
cows; weaning; cattle; calves
Two Nguni cows and a calf. Photo: Chris Jooste

Question: Is it advisable to buy 3- to 4-week-old calves and grow them? What are the risks and what kind of feeding formula should I use?

The main risk of buying young calves lies in the fact that they don’t have a fully developed immune system and their health depends totally on the quantity of first milk (colostrum) they receive after calving.

  • Many newborn calves are available when dairy farmers don’t get a good price for their milk.
  • The reason is that farmers don’t expand their herds and therefore sell more young calves.
  • If you buy newborns, you must get an assurance from the farmer that the calves did, in fact, receive colostrum.
  • If this is not the case, most of them will get sick and die within the first month of life.
  • So don’t buy calves from a farmer where environmental conditions are unhygienic, even if the calves are very cheap.
  • The risk is reduced to a certain extent if you buy calves that are 3 to 4 months old.
  • Survival to this age shows that the calf must have some immunity and that it has adapted to artificial feeding.
  • To reduce the risk further, you need to keep the calf on the same feed as it is used to – or better.

Milk replacers like Surromel make liquid feeding easy because the powder can be made up with tap water as needed.

  • You need a milk replacer high in energy, which comes from the fat it contains. This must be higher than 15%.
  • The calf needs to be fed at 10% of body weight per day, which equates to 4 litres of milk or milk replacers for a 40 kg calf.
  • The milk stomach can only hold 1.5 to 2 litres of milk so it is advisable to give no more than 2 litres per feeding.
  • Small-scale farmers should rather give 4 feeds (1 litre each) per day.
  • But milk or milk replacers are expensive, so calves need to begin a starter ration as soon as possible.

This should have a high protein component (12% to 18%), and it is more cost-effective: feeding milk or milk replacers can be stopped as soon as the calf eats up to 1 kg of the starter ration per day. The aim is to be able to stop milk feeds as soon as possible after the calf is eight weeks old.

The possibility that small-scale farmers can raise calves successfully lies in the fact that they have more time to care for individual calves than large-scale dairy farmers do. Individual attention – such as frequent feeding throughout the day and providing a clean environment – is critical.

Small-scale farmers who want to raise calves must have a close relationship with a veterinarian. They will need to be able to contact the vet regularly so they can ask questions – especially during the learning phase, when they are raising their first few batches of calves.

Also read:
How to mix creep feed for calves
Reducing risks to calves in feedlots
Cattle production: What is weaning shock?

  • This article was written by Dr. Danie Odendaal and first appeared in Farming SA.