Purchasing calves – Frequently Asked Questions  

What is the ideal age to purchase calves?

To some extent it depends on the source of the calves. Calves should ideally be a minimum of two weeks old, having received transition milk from freshly calves cows during their initial two weeks. They will be much stronger and their intestinal tract will be much more mature.

If calves get a good start on the original farm, it can be good to leave them on the original farm for longer than two weeks. This allows them to be stronger and more resistant to disease. Being stronger helps them to compete more easily in a new environment. A good start means good housing, adequate colostrum, lots of transition milk and having meal, water and forage available to them from the beginning.

If calves do not get a good start, taking them earlier and giving them some TLC can be more advantageous. Some reasons farmers may not be able to give them as good a start as possible may be due to limited space and labour. Therefore, they will have to prioritise and naturally, their future dairy cows, the heifers will get priority.

Some ways to give calves TLC when they arrive is to give them an extra deep bed, use infrared lamps if they are young and the weather is cold, give them electrolytes on arrival (particularly if they had a long distance to travel) and feed them a transition milk replacer.

What should volume of milk/milk replacer should calves be feed in the days after purchasing?

The volume of milk or milk replacer you should feed them depends on their previous feeding regime, breed and age and your feeding regime. If you don’t know their history, it is safest to go happy medium with approximately 600-750g powder. If you have an automatic machine this will be 5-6 litres at 12.5% solids. If you are feeding twice a day it will be 2.5 to 3.0 litres per feed at 12.5% solids. If you are feeding once a day (only if you have a powder designed for once a day feeding) you can feed 3 to 3.5 litres per feed at approximately 20% solids. If you know the previous milk feeding regime, try to stick as closely to that as possible, particularly if they are very young. If you wish to feed them differently, you can change their feed gradually after 2-3 days. If you wish to move them on to once daily feeding, you can do it immediately if calves have come a short distance and you know they have had a good start, or you can feed them twice daily for 2-3 days to ensure there will be no surprise issues and then transfer to once daily feeding from day 3 or 4.

Is it important to thoroughly understand the calves start in life to make an appropriate decision?

It is not completely necessary, but it is definitely an advantage to know how the calves were managed in the beginning of life. If you know, you know what to expect from the calves. If not, treat them as if they have had a rough start until you are comfortable that they are settled into your regime. One of the main impacts is colostrum feeding and if sourcing calves from four farms for e.g. it can quickly become apparent if one farm has poorer management than another. A way to assure that calves are managed appropriately initially and that you get calves worth the money you pay for them, finding good calves and building up a relationship with specific farmer(s) will be a way

If I buy calves at 3 weeks of age is it ok to house them on plastic slatts without straw?

Despite many thoughts on this it is better not to do this. It is assumed that calves have begun development of the rumen at 3 weeks of age and therefore can regulate their own body temperatures. This is not true as many calves are only beginning to consume concentrates (maybe 0.25 kg/day or less) and many are fed only milk prior to sale. Ideally you would house all calves on straw upon arrival. Straw allows calves to nest and create a microclimate where they will have warmer air, therefore not having to constantly adjust to the environmental temperatures surrounding them. This is particularly important for calves purchased in the winter and early spring, when the weather is cold and unpredictable.

Is it better to house calves indoors during their first few weeks?

In most cases, it is best to help them settle in indoors. You can monitor them more closely, control their environment more efficiently and increase the rate of rumen development with ad-lib water, concentrates and straw. An exception would be during the summer with very good weather, they would do fine outside with shelter, provided they are close by and can still be monitored closely with ad-lib concentrates.

Is there anything I need to be mindful of when transporting calves?

Any change or anything new is a stress to the calves. This includes moving from one house to another within the same yard and so, transporting calves can be a big stressor on them. This is particularly true if their journey is more than 30 minutes. There are some things to consider that can minimise the stresses to the calves. These things may seem very small and insignificant or silly but they can certainly play a large role in whether you come out to a group of sick calves or healthy calves in the days after transport.

Firstly you need to ensure all calves are handled calmly and quietly. This will reassure calves and not give them reason to think something bad is happening them. Any amount of stress can result in illness which can have detrimental effects on overall thrive and the chance of survival.

Secondly is the trailer. You should ensure there are no draughts directly on the calves during transport. This is just like housing, draughts can result in illness both pneumonia and scour. For the same reason, bedding the trailer is important. Furthermore, laying down straw will increase comfort for the calves. Space allowance is very important to minimise stress. Calves should have at least 0.5 m2 each during transit.

During the journey itself, driving slowly and calmly greatly reduces stress. Calves will need a lot of energy if they are trying to steady themselves and are forced to overcrowd due to the force of movement. This stress can lead to illness and also increase the time it takes calves to settle in i.e. take to milk and concentrates.

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