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Taking care of calves from birth to 3 months

Calfs play at Kisii Agricultural Training Center. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Female calves are the future of the herd and for that reason, they must be well taken care of. When we cull the older cows due to decreased milk production or otherwise, these little ones become the replacement heifers.

Healthy calves are the central theme in modern dairy farming business. So how do you take care of your calves from birth to three months?

At calving

When the cow has given birth, ensure you wipe the nostrils to induce normal breathing.

In case there were delays in giving birth, hold up the legs of the calf to raise it in the air such that the head is lower than the body then swing it gently side by side. This helps to drain any fluids from its nostril via gravity. 

Immediately after birth, the calf should take colostrum which is the mother’s first milk. It is thick and yellow and contains antibodies and other elements that provide the calf with immunity before its own develops with time.

The calf can only benefit from these antibodies within the first 24 hours after birth and therefore it should ingest a good amount of colostrum immediately after birth.

According to research, suckling allows better uptake of these antibodies than bucket milk.

After producing colostrum, the cow starts to produce normal milk.

A calf should get milk equivalent to 10 per cent of its body weight to achieve a daily weight gain of 500 grams.

Assuming the calf weighs 50 kilos at birth, it should get at least five litres of milk daily. This amount can be divided into two or three portions to be fed in the morning, lunch time and in the evening.

From milk to solids

For better results, the calf should take the milk immediately after milking when it is still hot. In the warm weather, provide limited amounts of water, like a litre for the calf to drink.

To avoid disease incidences, you can warm this water for the calf during cold weather. Remember that young calves are naïve and cannot limit the amount of water they drink.

Failure to limit water intake prompts the calf to over drink which causes red urine. Once the calf grows up provide the water all the time (ad libitum).

From around the third week, feed the calf with pellets which are energy-rich and can be added to the milk.

At first, add small portions – a few spoonful - and increase gradually to avoid digestion problems. This practise promotes the development of the fore stomachs – rumen and reticulum - of the calf and places the calf at an advantage position to start feeding on dry matter early enough.

Remember that while the cow’s milk contains mineral salts, they are not sufficient for the rapidly growing calf. Salt blocks can be provided to cover the deficit by licking. They can be bought in agro vets and veterinary pharmacies.

Deworming and tick control is done to control worms and ticks when the calves are allowed to graze with other cows. Additionally, in well paddocked pastures, let in calves first and then the cows.

For a healthy future heifer, a calf should be allowed the company of other calves which are of two weeks’ age difference. This way, they form a ‘kindergarten’ where they learn to eat, drink and play together. Licking each other is a sign that the calves have established a strong and lasting bond.

[The writer is the resident vet at Farm Kenya Initiative]


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