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HomeDairy‘Although costly and time-consuming, heifer rearing can be rewarding’
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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‘Although costly and time-consuming, heifer rearing can be rewarding’

Trevor Alcorn, CAFRE dairying development adviser, discusses rearing dairy heifers.

Rearing dairy heifer calves is the second largest annual expense for dairy farms, accounting for about 20% of production costs.

Farmers must pay close attention to detail, from before birth and up to weaning, to ensure healthy calves.

Management for healthy calves starts pre-calving. You should dry a milking cow off at least six to eight weeks before calving to ensure sufficient time to produce quality colostrum.

A high yielding cow with a low body condition at drying off will require a pre-calver concentrate ration. Still, certainly, all cows should receive dry cow minerals to maintain the required vitamin and mineral status of both cow and developing calf.

BCS and vaccinations

Ideally, the cow should be calving at an optimum body condition score of 3 that is not too fat or thin.

Several farmers also use the dry period as an opportunity to vaccinate cows against some of the agents which cause calf scours (e.g., Rotavirus or E-coli).

The derived immunity is passed on to the unborn calf.

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If Rotavirus or E-coli have been diagnosed as a persistent problem, then consult your local vet to discuss if a vaccination programme would be beneficial.

Pre- and post-calving

The calving environment should be as clean as possible with dry bedding to minimise disease risk.

Disinfected calving aids should be ready for use. Once the calf is born, ensure that its airway is clear and that it can breathe properly.

Treat the naval after birth with an iodine solution dip to prevent the onset of joint ill. Furthermore, dripping gives better results than spraying.

Colostrum is essential to calf health. Baby calves have no active immunity at birth and must receive between 3 and 5 litres of colostrum as soon as possible after birth.

This should preferably be from a teat to establish a good suckling reflex. Feed a minimum of six litres in the first twelve hours.

The level of antibodies in the colostrum decreases with each milking, as does the calf’s ability to absorb antibodies into its system.

Calves are unable to absorb antibodies from the intestine after 24-36 hours.

Rearing dairy heifers: Scour

Maintaining calf health and thrive is achieved by good feeding and housing management and attention to disease control. Scours and respiratory problems are the two main causes of illness common in young calves.

It is a real challenge to every farmer to control the onset of illness and reduce the impact of the disease on the calf health.

Scour is the biggest killer of calves under one month of age resulting in 3% mortality. Around 50% of scours are caused by poor hygiene.

Causes of nutritional scour include:

  • A lack of sufficient colostrum after birth;
  • Too much milk, or in the case of a milk replacement product, could be too concentrated, lumpy, and not properly mixed.

Irregular feeding can cause problems and a lack of consistent amounts. Cold, damp, draughty or humid housing can also cause susceptibility to scour.

Several pathogens cause infectious scours. Investigate all scour outbreaks early by consulting your vet to arrange for faecal samples to be sent to the AFBI veterinary sciences division to identify the pathogen causing the problem.

Some vets offer a quick diagnostic faecal sample test on-farm. Pathogens are often picked up from the environment, so lack of cleanliness in the calving area and in the calf rearing house are major risk factors.

Always isolate infected calves in a warm environment and treat them according to the source of the scour. Besides, your vet will provide advice on vaccination and suggest a future prevention health plan.


Pneumonia is a respiratory disease that reduces performance and, unless treated effectively, will result in the death of the calf.

It is the most common cause of death in 1 to 6-month-old calves. Several different infectious agents can be involved in an outbreak, with BRSV and PI3 the most common primary agents.

Again, consult your vet on the most suitable treatment and discuss a vaccination programme that can help protect the calf against these and other pathogens.

Housing and ventilation

Poor housing and ventilation are among the main causes of pneumonia.

High humidity caused by damp bedding, poor air movement or overcrowding can lead to a tenfold increase in the number of infectious organisms and the time they survive.

Stress, inadequate colostrum feeding, and high levels of atmospheric ammonia are other factors that predispose calves to infection.

Steps to prevent pneumonia include:

  • Ensuring adequate colostrum intake;
  • Keeping the bedding dry with good drainage and frequent cleaning;
  • Provide effective ventilation in calf sheds, although try to avoid draughts at calf level;
  • Avoid overcrowding;
  • Try not to mix different ages of stock in the same shed;
  • Aim to minimise general stress on the young calf.
Birth to weaning management

Generally, feed calves whole milk or milk replacement products up to at least 6 – 8-weeks-old.

Offer a good quality calf concentrate, or coarse mix from one week of age. Always ensure access to hay or straw, as the long fibre will help develop the calf rumen.

Clean water should always be easily available. Many farmers now use automatic feeders for batches of calves, thus reducing labour requirements.

However, remember to walk through the calves regularly, allowing the calves to get used to human contact.

This should encourage calves to be quieter, more easily managed and milked when mature.

Wean calves when they are eating at least 1kg of calf concentrate and after weaning, increase to 2kgs per day, along with forage.

Summary: Rearing dairy heifers

The management adopted during the calf rearing period has a major impact on heifer rearing costs and milking performance.

Farmers should ensure that calves get the best possible start in life and do not suffer any serious setbacks caused by health problems.

Although costly and time-consuming, heifer rearing can be rewarding with an enjoyable outcome of fine healthy heifers to be the next generation of the dairy herd.

See more articles from CAFRE.

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