What milk and concentrates should be in the diet of the calf?

Teagasc advice

Sian Moloughney


Sian Moloughney



Kilkenny Kilkenny

As part of the Animal Health Ireland & Teagasc Calf Care Virtual Week, Teagasc researcher Emer Kennedy and Joe Patton, Teagasc nutritionist, discussed the guidelines for feeding milk and concentrates to calves.

The primary goal of the rearing phase is to double the birth weight of the calf by 56 days of age. Good nutrition is fundamental to animal health, welfare and productivity.
The type of liquid feed given to calves following colostrum is transition milk. The feeding of this depends on the farm targets, milk price, milk availability, disease status of the farm and labour availability.

Feeding milk
Emer highlights the importance of following the correct guideline for making up the milk replacer. Debate regarding the best temperature to feed milk or milk replacer stems from concerns about the impact that temperature has on the energy expenditure of the calf. The bottom line is that liquid feed is best provided at a constant temperature, i.e. avoid feeding warm milk one day, cool milk the next.
Feeding milk replacer is common practice on many farms. There is a wide range of milk replacer powders available, each with their advantages and disadvantages on nutritional content and cost. Some milk powders are suited to specific rearing systems so it is important to match the powder to the system employed.

Purchasing in dairy calves
Emer advises on feeding electrolytes after transport for the first feed and depending on distance a second feed of electrolytes may be required. Once per day feeding can be introduced from one month of age, but Emer warns of the need to check calves twice per day.
Weaning can take place once calves are consuming 1kg of concentrate per head per day.

Feeding concentrates & Fibre
According to Joe Patton, the intake of calf starter concentrates is the single most important factor in the development of the rumen, which is very small and undeveloped at birth. Starter intake is important in ensuring a smooth transition from milk feeding to an adult diet at weaning without setbacks to growth. In general, calves are fed a ‘calf starter’ ration up to 12-16 weeks of age.

Water consumption is important for the development of the rumen and to allow for timely weaning of calves off milk. Ruminants require quality fibre in the diet to maximise production and maintain health by sustaining a stable environment within the rumen.
From 3-4 days of age, fresh water should be offered to all calves. Ideally water should be made available to calves from birth.