Inspire Cattle Solutions


Calves need colostrum first!

All calves need to get colostrum: it’s definitely the best meal of their lives! However, after that, most calves are separated from their mothers within 24 hours and may be reared in small groups together. The question is: does this affect their growth performance or behaviour?


Effects on Growth

  • If calves are left to suckle their mothers, the cow produces up to 14kg LESS milk per day to weaning. This is economically unsustainable in most dairies!
  • Calves staying with their mothers for up to 6 weeks, gained weight at 3 times the rate of separated calves up to 6 weeks (Roth B.A. 2009)
  • Calves on automatic feeders gain more weight than suckled calves after weaning (0.4kg/d) (Roth B.A. 2009)
  • Calves on automatic feeders eat 16-19kg more concentrates in total to weaning than suckled calves (Roth B.A. 2009). This however, is far less money invested than that lost in milk from mothers.
  • Calves kept with their mothers gain 25-28kg more than automatic-fed calves to weaning (Roth B.A. 2009) (Kisak P. 2011)
  • There is no evidence of any difference between group or individually housed calves or separated/suckled calves on disease rates (Costa J.H.C. 2016) (Grondahl A.M. 2007) (Kisak P. 2011) (Lee H.J. 2009)

Effects on Behaviour

Behaviour of mothers and calves is more subjective to measure and evidence reflects this. People tend to measure vocalisation of calf and mother, play behaviour, head movements and other signs that they think might be seeking behaviour for either mother or calf.

  • The calf to mother bond increases with increasing time to weaning and mothers/calves bond to their specific parents/offspring.
  • These bonding behaviours however, appear to be present even after 6 hours from birth in the mother but not so much in the calves (Stehulova I. 2017), so separation from this time onwards would appear to have a behavioural effect on the animals concerned.
  • Calves and mothers appear to seek each other, but this behaviour is expressed less with the mother, even after 3 hours of separation.
  • Separation appears to have effects on calves but only after several days of contact, so separation early would appear to be beneficial if this is your management strategy


From an economic point of view, separation at birth has better growth weights in calves after weaning and has lower Johnes’ disease rates (Windsor, 2010). It also gives up to 14kg more milk per day from the mother. This makes separation at birth an essential decision on most dairies. From a behavioural point of view, there are beneficial effects of staying with mothers in terms of bonding but separation at birth does not appear to have effects on the calves and mothers seem to have less impact after even 3 hours of separation.

Where is the Evidence?

  • Roth B.A., Barth K., Gygax L., Hillmann E. 2009. “Influence of artificial vs mother-bonded rearing on sucking behaviour, health and weight gain in calves.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 119: 143-150
  • Kisak P., Broucek J., Uhrinkat M., Hanus A. 2011. “Effect of weaning calves from mother at different ages on their growth and milk yield of mothers.” Czech Journal of Animal Science 56 (6): 261-268
  • Grondahl A.M., Skancke E.M., Mejdell C.M., Jansen J.H. 2007. “Growth rate, health and welfare in a dairy herd with natural suckling until 6-8 weeks of age: a case report.” Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica 49 (1): 16
  • Jensen M.B. 2011. “The early beaviour of cow and calf in an individual calving pen.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 134 (3-4): 92-99
  • Lee H.J., Khan M.A., Lee W.S., Yang S.H., Kim S.B., Kee K.S., Ha J.K., Choi J.K. 2009. “Influence of equalizing the gross composition of milk replacer to that of whole milk on the performance of Holstein calves.” Journal of Animal Science 87 (3): 1129-1137
  • Stehulova I., Valnickova B., Sarova R., Spinka M. 2017. “Weaning reactions in beef cattle are adaptively adjusted to the state of the cow and the calf.” Journal of Animal Science 95 (3): 1023-1029
  • Windsor P.A., Whittington R.J. 2010. “Evidence for age susceptibility of cattle to Johnes’ Disease.” The Veterinary Journal 184 (1): 37-44

Should you invest in Pasteurisation?

Pasteurisation of milk improves health and weight gains

The quick answer: YES!

The evidence is overwhelming to support the feeding of pasteurised milk to calves. They have been proven to grow faster, disease risk is lower and mortality rates reduce!

Preweaning health and performance is significantly better in calves fed pasteurized waste milk as compared to calves fed a traditional 20:20 milk replacer feeding program:

  1. They had fewer sick days, lower mortality rates, lower costs for health expenditures, higher weights at weaning, and a higher gross margin ($8.41/calf) per calf
  2. Their Average daily Weight Gain (ADG) was significantly greater in calves fed pasteurized waste milk (0.46kg/day)
  3. Preweaning mortality rates were 83% lower for calves fed pasteurized waste milk (2.3%) than for calves fed milk replacer (11.6%).

Losing a heifer calf means losing genetic improvement in the herd, the investment of feeding a pregnant cow and the investment of time in birthing and rearing. Invest in a pasteurisation machine and it will definitely pay off!


Where is the Evidence?

Try reading more on:

  1. S., Godden. 2008. “A review of issues surrounding the feeding of waste milk and pasteurization of waste milk and colstrum.” University of Minnesota: Continuing Veterinary Education. Accessed January 24, 2019.

Should I Recommend Whole Milk or Milk Replacer for calves?

Growth of 0.75-0.95kgday is achievable with milk or replacer

Whole milk can provide the ideal mix of proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals that the calf needs, as long as the cows are fed appropriately and have enough access to feed. Replacer can have all of the right ingredients added to it BUT management of it is the key:

  1. There is potential to mix incorrectly
  2. It may not have all of the minerals and vitamins required, depending on manufacturer
  3. There is potential for human or machine error in making the mixture correctly
  4. It has been shown that calves grow up to 0.48kg/day more up to weaning from whole milk, even when compared with an exact fat, protein and intake match on replacer (1)

Ultimately, the answer to this totally depends on economics: growth is improved on whole milk but 0.75-0.95kg/day growth targets can also be met on milk replacer. The question is: what is more economic at the time? Lost milk from the dairy, or replacer?

Is waste milk OK?

Waste, or dumped milk can be an attractive option to feed to calves: it often does have the right nutrients and even if acidified, can provide target growth weights to weaning. It has however, been shown that milk with known antibiotic resistance can be passed to calves fed on this milk (2).

Really, the ideal recommendation would be to not feed dumped milk, but practically, it is economically attractive and there is little evidence to show worse disease rates, growth rates or adverse effects on weaning targets (2)

Pasteurisation would be highly recommended (see my next post)

Where is the Evidence?

  1. Lee H.J., Khan M.A., Lee W.S., Yang S.H., Kim S.B., Kee K.S., Ha J.K., Choi J.K. 2009. “Influence of equalizing the gross composition of milk replacer to that of whole milk on the performance of Holstein calves.” Journal of Animal Science 87 (3): 1129-1137
  2. 1.S., Godden. 2008. “A review of issues surrounding the feeding of waste milk and pasteurization of waste milk and colostrum.” University of Minnesota: Continuing Veterinary Education. Accessed January 24, 2019.

How Much Colostrum is Right?

According to scientific review, 10-12% of the calf’s bodyweight is the ideal volume of colostrum to give to a calf. Most Holstein calves are born between 35 and 40kg, so 3.5 Litres would be recommended as the first feed. Take milk from the mother and administer by tube and bag to ensure the full amount is given.

Learn MORE Now!

When is the ideal time to give it?

Colostrum is the BEST start: Invest Time and Get It Right!

The highest amount of immune transfer to the calf is found when you follow this protocol:

  1. Give 10-12% bodyweight of the calf from the mother AT BIRTH or within 1 hour of birth
  2. Give a second amount of the same volume within 6-12 hours of birth
  3. At least another feed within 24 hours
  4. Continue to feed colostrum for the first 4 days: You have to withdraw this milk anyway in the EU (you may lose 2 days in the US/Canada)


Colostrum contains antibodies, which are absorbed by the calf for the first 12-24 hours. It ALSO contains immune cells, cytokines and other proteins that protect and prepare the calf’s immune system in its gut. This can help to set up the maximum protection against pathogen attack and has been shown to reduce diarrhoea and improve growth weights to weaning age.

Where’s the Evidence?

Paste these references into Google Scholar and read the articles to find out more:

  1. Jaster E.H., (2005), “Evaluation of quality, quantity and timing of colostrum feeding on immunoglobulin G1 absorption in Jersey calves”, Journal of Dairy Science, 88, 296-302
  2. Godden S., (2008), “Colostrum Management for Dairy Calves.” Veterinary Clinics of North America Food Animal Practice 24: 19-39
  3. Atkinson D.J., von Keyserlingk M.A.G., Weary D.M., (2017), “Benchmarking passive transfer of immunity and growth in dairy calves”, Journal of Dairy Science, 100, 3773-3782

Cows in metabolic stress have calves with lower body weights at birth and the calves’ immunity is negatively affected.

A recent article has shown that cows with higher fat mobilisation in late pregnancy or greater oxidative stress (an indicator of immune stress) produce lower body weight calves. Also, immune cells taken from these calves in early life show less ability to react to microbial attack.

How was this discovered?

Twin calvings can create metabolic stress

In this experiment by a group from Australia & Michigan State, 12 multiparous Holstein-Friesian cows were chosen with either normal, or stress-indicated markers in blood (non-esterified fatty acids, haptoglobin or oxidative stress indicators – OSi). Their calves were weighed at birth and at 4 weeks old and blood was taken from the calves at 7, 14, 20 and 29 days of age. The blood was measured for signs of how the immune cells responded to lipopolysaccharide (LPS) stimulation by the production of tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNFalpha). LPS is a molecule found in the outer coat of Gram negative bacteria, such as E. coli and TNFalpha is a substance produced by the immune system when it is under attack from microbes (an acute phase protein).

What Happened?

Cows with high NEFA and OSi had calves which were avg. 2 to 3kg LESS from calving to 4 weeks of age.

Calves from cows with high NEFA and OSi had cells with less ability to react to TNFalpha when stimulated by LPS.

What does this mean for Dairy Health?

This research implies that cows that are managed to have less metabolic and immune stress (less disease and less energy deficits) in their dry period can not only better protect themselves in early lactation but also have beneficial effects on the health of their calves.

This research comes from the Journal of Dairy Science, 2018, Vol 101(7), p6568-6580