Caring for your new baby

Providing proper care and nutrition for your newborn calves will give them the best start at a long, healthy, productive life. The feeding needs of a calf change quickly in the first weeks, so being prepared in advance for each phase will help get your calf off to a strong nutritional start.

Feeding & nutrition in the first weeks

0-48 Hours: Calves will naturally begin nursing within hours of birth, where they benefit from the immune-boosting power of the cow’s colostrum. However, if the calf is unable or unwilling to nurse, colostrum replacer is critical to ensure that adequate nutrition is received in the first hours of life. Start bottle feeding a colostrum replacer such as Calf Colostrum 100 Replacer within 2 hours after birth, when the newborn calf is best equipped to absorb the critical antibodies in colostrum.

Days 1-2: After 24-48 hours, you can switch to milk replacer for a calf who is not nursing adequately. Milk or milk replacer will be the primary source of the calf’s nutrition for the first two to three months, until weaning. Always choose a milk replacer that is specifically formulated for calves, such as one of the Sav-A-Caf® Milk Replacers.  The milk replacer will provide the optimal blend of energy (carbohydrates and fat), protein, vitamins and minerals for healthy calf development. Calves thrive on routine, so it is best to feed the calf by pail or bottle twice a day at the same time, preferably morning and evening. A third feeding can provide beneficial added nutrition for small or weak calves or during very cold winter.

Week 1: Continue feeding milk replacer twice a day while introducing free-choice starter feed concentrate specifically formulated for calves with at least 18% protein. Cows are ruminants, with a 4-part stomach built for digesting large quantities of forage. Calves, however, are born as monogastrics, with a stomach best adapted to digesting milk. Early feeding of grain helps increase the size of and beneficial bacteria populations in the immature rumen to jump-start development. Large amounts of forage can actually slow rumen development in very young calves, so do not feed hay or allow access to large amounts of pasture until after the calf is weaned.

Don’t forget the water! Water is one of the most important elements of the calf’s nutrition, and another important factor for beneficial bacteria development in the rumen. Keeping the water clean and fresh will encourage the calf to drink enough to stay hydrated.

Weeks 6-12: Feed consumption is the most important factor in determining when to wean your calf. When the calf is regularly consuming water and eats at least two pounds of calf starter per day, weaning can begin. With calves who are eating well (5-6 pounds of starter), you can wean abruptly, or “cold turkey.” Alternatively, you can cut back to one milk replacer feeding per day for 10 to 14 days to encourage starter feed intake in preparation for weaning. If the calf is under stress from transport, vaccination or other causes, it is best to delay weaning until the calf is less stressed; weaning can be stressful enough to the calf in itself!

Special nutritional needs

Even the best-fed calves will occasionally fall sick, and your veterinarian will be the best source of information and advice for caring for your sick calf. Your veterinarian may recommend adding a supplement or temporarily changing to a different milk replacer product to address your calf’s needs.

Cold Weather or Stress: When calves are stressed by transport, vaccination, dehorning or cold weather, a concentrated energy supplement like Sav-A-Caf® K-Cal for Calves Energy Supplement can provide extra calories for nutritional support when added to milk or a milk replacer.

Scours (Diarrhea): Scours is the most common illness in young, pre-weaned calves. The scours may be nutritional, caused by inconsistent feeding, overfeeding, or feeding poor quality milk replacer or feed. Alternatively, it may be infectious, caused by bacteria, virus or protozoa. Regardless of the source of scours, the most immediate need is to reverse dehydration and electrolyte loss in the calf. Electrolyte supplements do not contain all the nutrients of milk replacer, so be sure to offer electrolytes in addition to the calf’s normal diet.

Medicated milk replacer is another option for addressing scours. Neomycin and oxytetracycline have been shown to target E. Coli, which is commonly found in scouring calves. These approved medicines can be found in Sav-A-Caf® Scours & Pneumonia Treatment Complete, a medicated milk replacer that can be used in place of your existing milk replacer product. Sav-A-Caf® Scours & Pneumonia Treatment Complete requires a VFD from your licensed veterinarian.

Mixing & feeding tips

Follow the mixing instructions listed on the package of the specific product you are feeding. Measuring the powder by weight with a scale is more accurate than measuring by volume with a scoop or cup. Always mix until the powder is dissolved.

Feeding milk replacer near the calf’s body temperature (between 100-105ºF) will encourage optimal consumption. Always follow the mixing and water temperature instructions on the package for the colostrum or milk replacer product you are feeding, however, as the recommended mixing temperature will vary by product formulation.

Proper sanitation and maintenance of the feeding equipment is also important for your calf’s health because bacteria can grow very quickly on feeding equipment. Use a separate bottle or pail for each calf, and wash your pails, bottles and nipples in soapy water and rinse well after every feeding. Never let mixed colostrum or milk replacer sit out for over an hour without refrigeration. Moisture creates an optimal breeding ground for bacteria, so allow your equipment to dry thoroughly between feedings. Check the nipples often for damage, because cracked or worn nipple holes can lead to over consumption or faster-than-usual feedings that can cause digestive upset.


Although cattle are social animals, it is best to house newborn calves in individual housing until they are weaned. Calf hutches made of sturdy plastic or fiberglass are a popular choice for housing calves outdoors. When the hutch is placed on a well-drained surface, such as sand or gravel facing southward, it will provide a well-protected and warm space for your newborn calf. But make sure to use stakes to secure the hutch so it stays in place in windy conditions!

A calf housed in a barn or shed will need 35 square feet of clear, well-lit space. Ensuring adequate ventilation without direct drafts will make calves more comfortable, as well as reduce the moisture, animal odors and gasses that can cause respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia. If you can smell ammonia in the barn, or if you see condensation on the walls or ceiling, it may be a sign that the barn does not have adequate ventilation for your newborn calf. Windows, fans and inlets around the ceiling perimeter allow fresh, cold air from the outside to mix with warm air before coming into contact with your calf.

No matter where you house your calves, they will better weather cold temperatures if they have a thick layer of clean, dry bedding of straw or shavings to insulate him from the cold of the ground or floor. To prevent the spread of disease when housing multiple calves, make sure their accommodations are far enough apart that they cannot have nose-to-nose contact, and always sanitize the hutches or stalls thoroughly between calves.

With a few advance preparations and supplies on hand, you can be prepared to give your new calf a healthy start at a productive life.