Calf survival

Why should I care?

After feed, heifer calve rearing is the dairy farmer’s largest expense. Calves must also reach lactation to provide any return on investment. However, 0-12% of dairy heifers do not survive their first month. That said, with good management practices, a 0% loss is not unachievable.

  • In 2018 registrations of cattle births were down 2% on the previous year.
  • There were high levels of on farm mortality at the beginning of the year due to bad weather.
  • Mortality was down in the winter months, but not enough to compensate for the poor start to the year.
  • Deaths of cattle under 12 months were 4% up on the previous year.
  • Deaths of cattle over 30 months were 6% up on 2017.

What can I do?

AHDB has produced a “Calf management” booklet to aid you maximise the performance of your calves. Here are the key messages…

  • Colostrum should be fed within two hours of birth
  • Three litres of colostrum should be fed within six hours
  • Test colostrum, it should be contain Quality declines with time.
  • Calves left to suckle are less likely to receive sufficient antibodies and should be nipple bottle or tube fed.
  • Blood test calves to monitor colostrum management
  • Collect colostrum as soon as possible
  • Know the disease status of your cows, ensure udder cleanliness, keep yourself clean, sanitise the cluster and pipework and use and clean dump bucket.
  • Refrigeration, freezing and pasteurisation help prevent bacterial growth.
  • Label stored colostrum with collection date and cow identity.
  • Test at every collection
  • When using a Brix refractometer high quality colostrum will have a reading of >22%
  • When using a colostrometer readings of > 50g/l of IgG indicate good quality. Anything containing >20g/l of IgG should be discarded.
  • Tube feeding is a skilled technique. AHDB provide guidance on the correct method.
  • When the tube is positioned correctly, it will inflate the oesophagus. This means both the windpipe and oesophagus can be felt.
  • This technique can also be used to administer electrolyte to dehydrated calves.
  • Feeding calves 10% of their bodyweight with milk or replacer is not sufficient for growing calves.
  • Feed 15% of the calf’s bodyweight and more as they grow.
  • Do not feed waste milk.
  • Feed milk from cows that are healthy and disease free.
  • Teat feeding will satisfy the calves desire to suckle.
  • Energy requirements are dependent on age, target growth rate an environmental conditions.
  • Whole milk contains 22.71MJ/kg on a dry matter basis.
  • AHDB have produced a “Calf Milk Replacer Energy calculator
  • The energy requirements (ME) for calves fed milk or replacer milk are provided in Table 3.
  • Price differences reflect ingredients, manufacturing technology and nutritional quality.
  • Milk replacers reduced the risk of disease transfer, stomach upset and scours, however, it has a lower energy content than milk. Products with plant-based proteins also have a lower digestibility in those under three weeks old.
  • Look for milk replacers containing 20-26% crude protein and 16-20% fat for optimal growth  rates.
  • AHDB provides a breakdown of the nutritional content of milk replacers.
  • Concentrate and water intake are the most important factors in rumen development.
  • Small amounts of fresh starter concentrate should be made available from the start.
  • Powdery or dusty concentrate will reduce intake.
  • Pellets should be larger than 1.19mm to prevent ruminal parakeratosis and bloat.
  • Quality forage should be provided in racks or buckets by three days of age to supply fibre.
  • Most calves are actively ruminating by 28 days of age.
  • Water is essential for rumen development and should be provided in addition to milk and milk replacer.
  • More milk and concentrate should be fed in colder weather.
  • Calves under three weeks should be feed an additional 50g of milk replacer or 0.33l of whole milk per day for every 5°C fall in temperature below 15°C.
  • Those older than three weeks should be feed an additional 50g of milk replacer or 0.33l of whole milk per day for every 5°C fall in temperature below 10°C.
  • Useful for calves under three weeks old when temperatures drop below 15°C and 5°C for older calves.
  • Be sure that you are providing sufficient energy and bedding before reaching for the jackets.
  • Sand, sawdust or shavings provide no thermal protection.
  • Jackets should be breathable and water-resistant or waterproof.
  • Clean and dry jackets should be fitted snugly to a dry calve.
  • Energy is used to cool the body when heat stressed meaning less is available for growth and the immune response.
  • Calves will become heat stressed when the environment around them is >25°C
  • High humidity and poor air flow can result in heat stress.
  • Monitor environmental temperature at calf level.
  • Look out for signs of heat stress
  • Roof lights can be a source of excess heat, try to fit roof lights on the north facing aspect of a building.
  • Wean healthy calves of at least five weeks of age based on concentrate intake.
  • Delay weaning for calves with ill health or poor concentrate intake.
  • Reduce milk red over 7-14 days.
  • Look to reduce stress as the immune system may be suppressed for at least two weeks.
  • Monitoring growth indirectly measures feed conversion efficiency.
  • Achieving growth rate targets maximises return on investment.
  • Measure height and weight.
  • Use birth weight as a baseline measure and take further measurements at weaning, one week post weaning, six months of age and at breeding.
  • Set growth targets as a percentage of mature weight or size.
  • Cryptosporidiosis is a common cause of calf scour.
  • Signs of infection include:
    • Watery yellow scour
    • Dehydration
    • Reduced feed intake
    • Cessation of sucking
    • Withdrawal from herd
  • Sources of infection include:
    • Bedding
    • Pasture
    • Soil
    • Water
  • Prevention measures include:
    • Good hygiene procedures.
    • Ensure calves receive adequate colostrum.
    • Vaccinate dams against E.coli, coronavirus and rotavirus.
    • Ensure calves are warm and hydrated.
    • Isolate scouring calves and tend to healthy animals first.
  • Treatment is dependent on the infecting pathogens.

External resources

AHDB Calf management booklet

This calf management booklet from AHDB will help you optimise your calf management and improve survival rates.


AHDB. 2018 Calf management. Available at: (Accessed 10 April 2019)

AHDB, 2019. GB Calf registrations down in 2018. Available at: (Accessed 9 April 2019)