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How To Gainfully Feed A Calf

by Joshua Kato
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“This is the most critical period in a calf’s life. The goal is to keep them alive, healthy andgrowing during this period of feeding. Calves have special nutritional needs. If these needs are not met, the calf can run into serious health issues either as a calf or later in life as an adult cow or bull. They may, for example, face stunted growth, produce low milk when they grow up or deliver poor offsprings,” says Dr Hussein Kato, from the National Livestock Resources Research Institute (NaLIRRI), Namulonge.

Feeding colostrum

Kato says colostrum is a milky fluid that comes from the udder of cows the first few days after calving, before true milk appears.

It contains proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and proteins (antibodies) that fight disease-causing agents such as bacteria and viruses.

“Antibody levels in colostrums can be 100 times higher than levels in regular cow’s milk,” he says.

Colostrum intake is critical for a newborn calf, as its immune system is not fully developed when born. The calf must rely on colostrum from its mother until its own immune system is developed at 1-2 months of age. Research has shown that the bacterial exposure a calf receives at birth influences the amount of colostrum it will absorb.

Early exposure of the intestine to large quantities of bacteria probably interferes with colostrum absorption. If maternity stalls are used, they should be clean, dry and bedded well with dry grass.

Generally, a calf should receive 5-6 % of its body weight as colostrum within the first 6 hours of life, and another 5-6 % of its body weight when the calf is 12 hours old.

Artificial colostrum

In case the mother cow dies at calving, artificial colostrum can be constituted formulated with:

  • 0.5 litre fresh milk
  • 1 fresh egg
  • 0.25 litre fresh water
  • 1 teaspoon cod liver oil
  • 1 teaspoon castor or olive oil (laxative). All oils are commonly sold in super markets.  

On day 5, start feeding whole milk at a rate 1 litre/day for every 10kg live weight of calf. The ration is again split into two feedings. Do not alter feeding times and quantity of milk. Bottle-feeding can be used.

Bucket feeding starts by inserting your 2 fingers in the bucket with milk and lowering the head of the calf’s mouth into the bucket.

According to Dr Jolly Kabirizi, a livestock nutrition expert and dairy farmer, milk consumed by a calf constitutes 15-30% of the farm milk available for sale or processing in intensive (zero-grazing) smallholder dairy cattle production systems in Uganda.

In order to minimise milk consumption by calves, farmers often resort to restricted milk feeding systems, thereby, retarding calf growth, production and reproductive potential. Losses of up to 65% of daily body weight gains and 12% of body condition score have been reported.

Under intensive dairy production systems bull calves are often completely eliminated at birth, resulting into low productivity and consequent high loss of farm income. “On average, a calf should consume 6 litres of milk per day divided into two feedings,” Kabirizi says.

Roughage and concentrate feeding

Gradually introduce good quality forage initially, from about 2 weeks of age. This stimulates rumen development and reduces problems of calf constipation. Introduce concentrate (calf starter) at about the same time pasture is introduced. Feeding is gradually increased so that by 12 weeks of age the calf is receiving 1-1.5kg per day. Any change over of feed type should allow a gradual adaptation to new feed at least over a period of 7 days.  The average cost of concentrate is sh1,000 per kilogramme.

Water is key

Provide the calf at least 10 litres per day of clean drinking water at all times, especially when the calf begins eating solid feed.

“Water troughs must be easily accessible to the calf on the calf pen,” Kato says.

Troughs can be made from several common materials including buckets or basins.


“In most developed livestock societies like the US, calves are weaned according to their body weight,” Dr Swidiq Mugerwa, the director of NaLIRRI says.

He explains that standard weight for weaning calves in the US is 100kgs.  “These can be attained even in one month,” Mugerwa says.

In Uganda, however, the most common weaning age in intensive dairy systems is 8 weeks (two months), but it may go up to 13 weeks (4 months) depending on, physical body condition of the calf, body weight and feed consumption.

Kabirizi advises that calves should be weaned gradually when they are eating one or two kilos of calf starter per day. This practice not only reduces costs associated with the high price of liquid feeds, but reduces the likelihood of calf scours.

Weaning may be delayed when the weather is cold or calves are weakened by previous or existing illnesses.

Feeding the weaned calf Calves should be housed individually until they are 9-10 weeks of age. Forage legumes like lablab purpureus (lablab) have high protein content, but legume hay or a mixture of legume-grass pasture cut before flowering is more palatable. Continue to feed calf starter and limited quantities of pasture until starter intake reaches about 2kg per day.

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