× Home News KTN Farmers TV Smart Harvest Farmpedia Value Chain Series Mkulima Expo 2021 Poultry Webinar Agri-directory Digital News Videos Health & Science Lifestyle Opinion Education Columnists Moi Cabinets Arts & Culture Fact Check Podcasts E-Paper Lifestyle & Entertainment Nairobian Entertainment Eve Woman Eve Woman Euro2020 TV Stations KTN Home KTN News BTV KTN Farmers TV Radio Stations Radio Maisha Spice FM Vybez Radio Enterprise VAS E-Learning Digger Classified Jobs Games Crosswords Sudoku The Standard Group Corporate Contact Us Rate Card Vacancies DCX O.M Portal Corporate Email RMS

Home / Smart Harvest

The A-Z of a calf and cow’s dietary needs

The calf is the foundation of the future dairy herd and the future heifer is the calf, therefore getting its dietary needs right at this stage is critical

Dr Francis Njonge

[email protected]

In a dairy enterprise, animal feeds is one of the important components that determine failure and success of the project. Feeds actually take up more than 50 percent of production costs. Today, I will focus on this critical aspect of production from calf to mature heifer.


The calf is the foundation of the future dairy herd. This is because selection of replacements for culled cows can only be effective if good replacement heifers are available in enough numbers. The future heifer is the calf.

Therefore the farmer needs to take a great deal of care and time to ensure the calf is fed and managed well to produce a calf which will eventually result in:

i.  Lower mortality/death rate

Replacement heifers that will start milk production early. It is important for the farmer to understand that when a heifer starts producing milk early, by the time the cow is old enough to stop production, the farmer will have made a lot of profit because the animal will have produced a lot of milk in its whole life. If this production starts as early as at 24 months, the better.

ii. Faster genetic improvement. The calf is the carrier of its parents genetic potential so the earlier the genetic potential is exhibited to the calf the better.

To therefore rear a calf described above, it must be fed in 4 phases:

(i)   Colostrum phase.

Calves are exclusively fed on colostrum for the first three to four days.

Colostrum provides the newborn calf with immunity to help resist diseases. It is important that the calf is fed on colostrum within the first 12 hours after birth. If necessary, the calf should be assisted to consume colostrum from a nipple bottle. The calf is protected against diseases the mother has been exposed to and therefore acquires immunity against them.

(ii)   Pre-ruminant phase (3 days to 20 - 30 days)

Calves should be fed milk at approximately 10 per cent of body its weight. The milk can be mixed with other dairy products to lower cost such as whey or skim milk.

Always feed milk at body temperature, that is neither too hot nor too cold.

(iii) Transition stage (Liquids and dry feeds) 

Commercial milk replacers can be fed if available and cheaper than milk as they would result in increased profits to the farmer and increase milk for human consumption.

The milk replacer should contain 22 per cent protein if all protein is from milk sources or 24 per cent when some plant protein is included.

Milk replacers are always inferior to whole milk and should only be fed if they are cheaper. Calves should also be fed on calf pellets to help in development of the rumen or the fore stomach.

(iv) Post-weaning stage (dry feeds).

This is when calves are no longer fed on liquid feed (milk or milk replacer) and therefore feed on roughage. This is usually when the calves are four months old and are approximately twice their birth weight.


The aim is to maximise milk yield and maintain the cow in good health.The nutrient requirements of a dairy cow are energy, fat, protein, minerals, vitamins and water.

A balanced ration will consist of combined feed ingredients which will be consumed in amounts needed to supply the daily nutrient requirements of the cow, both in correct proportion and amount.

Note that dairy cows suffer from a limited intake of water more quickly and severely than from a deficiency of any other dietary nutrient. Therefore, water should be availed at all times (ad libitum).

A quantitative blend of all diet ingredients formulated to specific nutrient concentration, mixed thoroughly to prevent separation and fed at free will to a cow is called a Total Mixed Ration (TMR).

Total Mixed Ration

To formulate it you need, information on the cow’s body weight, expected milk yield and expected dry matter intake (how much feed, free of water) the cow can consume in one day. This allows the formulator to ensure that all the required nutrients are included in the amount of feed that can be consumed in one day.

The formulation should be done by an animal nutritionist for the different groups of animals on the farm based on each group’s requirements.

The farmer can be advised on request on how he can do the formulation on a need basis.

During early lactation, concentrates such as Dairy Meal should be added to the diet to increase the energy and protein content. This is because milk production increases more rapidly than feed intake with the energy demand being higher than intake.

Cows therefore tend to lose weight in early lactation. Too much weight loss may be detrimental to the cow’s health and reproductive performance subsequently leading to the cow not coming on heat at the optimum time and therefore concentrate feeding is paramount.

A simple guideline to feeding concentrates is to understand that a production of up to 7kg of milk a day is attained from the basal forage diet and therefore, for every extra 1.5kg milk above 7 kg, give 1 kg dairy meal. This the very basic guide to the farmer.


Proper feeding of cow during the dry period helps realise it’s potential during next lactation and minimise health problems after calving such as milk fever.

At the time of drying, cows should be fed a ration to cater for maintenance and pregnancy but two weeks before calving the cow should be fed on low-level concentrates in preparation for next lactation. 


This extra concentrate feeding is called steaming and it enables the cow to store some reserves to be used in early lactation. During this phase the cow should also be fed on good quality forage.

Prior to calving, concentrates should be fed progressively for rumen to adapt and minimise digestive disturbances. 

The amount of calcium and phosphorous fed should be restricted during the dry period to 0.4 per cent to minimise incidences of milk fever.

[The writer is the Dean, School of Natural Resources and Animal Sciences (SONRAS) in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology

Want to get latest farming tips and videos?
Join Us
Share this story

Stay Ahead!

Access premium content only available
to our subscribers.

Support independent journalism