Calf Care Essentials

Calf Care essentials

With calving rapidly approaching, here is a timely reminder from Dr Jenetta Forsyth, Farm Vet at Te Kauwhata on the most important things to get right.

Colostrum = the most important part of calf rearing!

A newborn calf is born with NO immunity to infection.

In humans, babies receive some antibodies across the placenta from Mum. No antibodies pass across the placenta from the cow to the calf and the newborn calf is totally dependent on antibodies received from the cow in colostrum.

To allow absorption of these antibodies the gut of a newborn calf is temporarily ‘open’. The key word there is ‘temporarily’ and the timing of that first feed is critical because the ability to absorb antibodies decreases from birth with the gut closing for absorption at 24 hours.

To get it right focus on:

QUALITY:  Only feed gold colostrum to calves.

Gold colostrum: 

  • The colostrum collected from a cow at the first milking after calving.
  • Colostrum quality decreases over time even if it’s still in the cow’s udder.
  • >22% BRIX – A BRIX refractometer is a very simple tool that measures colostrum quality with just one drop of colostrum.

QUANTITY:  Aim for 10% of the calf’s body weight (a 30kg calf should get 3L and a 40kg calf should get 4L)

  • TIMING:  Feed within 12 but preferably 6 hours of birth and stomach tubed if needed.
Debudding calves under sedation


Navel care

  • All calves should have their navels sprayed with iodine at pick-up, before entering the calf trailer, and then again on arrival to the calf shed.
  • To minimize damage to navels, keep calf trailers clean, non-slip, and don’t overcrowd.
  • Monitor navels while calves are in the calf shed. Treat any swelling as recommended by your vet. Navel infection can allow bacteria into the blood leading to infections in multiple organ systems.

Access to hay and meal

  • Offer meal and hay to calves from birth.
  • Meal aids in the development of the lining of the rumen, critical in the absorption of nutrients.
  • Hay is important in the development of rumen size, strength and in stimulating rumination.


Calves can be disbudded from 2 weeks of age, ideally before 8 weeks.

  • The procedure is less traumatic in younger calves with smaller horns so we encourage booking calves in small batches rather than waiting until they are all ready.
  • Local anaesthetic is a minimum requirement by law.
  • We recommend using a long-acting anti-inflammatory as well. This reduces pain and stress behaviour and leads to better growth rates compared with calves that have not received anti-inflammatory pain relief.


  • Clostridial vaccinations (6in1 or 10in1). Clostridial bacteria are found in the environment and vaccination is the best way to prevent death and disease. Calves are given 2 shots 4-6 weeks apart.
  • Leptospirosis vaccinations are extremely important due to the risk leptospirosis infection has on human health. Calves require two vaccinations 4-6 weeks apart and then an annual booster. It is important to vaccinate as calves because once a calf picks up leptospirosis and starts shedding it in her urine this will not resolve with vaccination.
  • Depending on your farm situation there may be additional vaccinations your calves will receive (Salmonella, BVD). Contact your vet for a suitable vaccination protocol if this is the case.

If you have any questions or would like to run through a Calf WOF with one of our vets please give us a call.


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