Calf care advice for small block farmers
June 2022

Whether you are rearing 1-2 calves for Ag day at school, or you are rearing 50+ to sell there are a few aspects that are key to calf rearing success.

Note: In this article we cover a few of these topics in general, but if you’d like to know more pop into your local Vetora branch to chat to one of our staff. They will be able to help you with specific questions or get you sorted with the right products.


The facilities where calves are kept are important for preventing disease and promoting calf health and development.

Key elements for calf housing:

Good ventilation and sunlight: ventilation prevents the build up of ammonia and smell. Sunlight is really important for keeping the pens dry and the UV light helps to kill some bacteria.

Dry: can you kneel on the bedding without getting wet?

If not, the bedding needs to be thicker, or you might need better drainage or ventilation.

Bedding: woodchips or sawdust work well. The bedding should be thick enough that you can kneel on it without getting sore knees.

Clean: between seasons the sheds should be cleaned out, bedding replaced and pen sanitised. Throughout the season, bedding should be topped up or replaced as it gets dirty and damp. Calf pens should be sanitised daily to weekly with disinfectant, depending on the number of calves in the shed. Milk feeders should also be cleaned daily as milk is an excellent food source for bacteria.

If calves are outside, they need to have access to shelter. Bad weather is often unavoidable in spring, have a plan in place for how to deal with it, this could be as simple as a shed, or moving calves to paddock with a good hedge or tree line in it.


Calves get their immunity to disease from the colostrum they drink in the first 24 hrs of their life. This first feed then is critical to give the calves their best start in life. If this first drink needs to be bottle fed or tube fed to a calf, ensure it is good quality colostrum or colostrum replacer. 

After the first 24 hrs, calves need good quality colostrum, milk or milk replacer. As a guide, calves need to drink 10% of their bodyweight in milk. The milk they are drinking should be fed consistently in similar volumes, concentration and at the same temperature every day. Changes in the milk they are drinking or feeding routine can cause diarrhoea in calves. 

Fresh, clean water should be available to calves at all times. 

Providing meal and some sort of hay or silage is also important to develop their rumen. Giving the calves access to roughage early encourages a smooth transition over weaning. 

Calf Scours

Despite our best efforts, occasionally calves get diarrhoea/scour. Early identification and treatment of sick calves is critical to success of the treatment. Severe dehydration as a result from the scour can be fatal, so keeping calves hydrated is the best way to start treatment. 

  • If calves are scouring but are still bright and have the desire to drink, milk should still be provided as they require it for energy.

Recommended method of treatment: 

Feed 2 litres of electrolyte per feed and repeat day 3 of the program if the calves are still scouring. Separate the milk and electrolyte feeds by 2-3 hrs in order for the milk to be digested.

  • If the calves aren’t drinking, they should immediately be tube-fed with 2 litres of electrolytes and monitored carefully for worsening of clinical signs. If no improvement in 24 hrs, call Vetora for assistance.

Poo samples can be tested for various common bacteria and virus that cause calves to scour. This can be useful to tailor the treatment course. Poo samples should be taken directly from the calf (not the ground) and should be collected into sterile pottles (available at your local clinic).


Calves should be vaccinated against clostridial diseases (tetanus, black leg etc.). There is a range of vaccines available, each covering different strains of clostridial bacteria. Calves will need 2 shots of this vaccine, 4–6 weeks apart. The first vaccination can be administered at disbudding, or around 3 weeks of age. This vaccine can be boosted at 1 year or age if necessary.

The other important vaccination is against leptospiral bacteria. Lepto is found in the environment and is found all over New Zealand. While animals are often infected with no clinical signs, the real risk is to human health. Humans can become infected with lepto by contact with infected urine, aborted material, water or feed contaminated by urine. Symptoms in humans can range from flu-like symptoms to more severe disease such as kidney failure. For this reason, we usually recommend that all livestock are vaccinated against Lepto. This vaccination is again 2 shots, 4–6 weeks apart with an annual booster.

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