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Feeding a calf from birth to weaning

By Dr Joseph Othieno
Cow suckling

Dear Othieno,

My Friesian cross has delivered a good-looking and healthy calf. Since I am now retired, I want to focus on dairy farming. This is the first calf in my farm, kindly educate me on how best to take care of it.



This is good news Mathews, sometimes you learn on the job but here are a few tips to get you started. 

Immediately after birth

Ensure nostrils and mouth are open for proper breathing. Disinfect the navel with 20 per cent iodine disinfectant. This helps in preventing infections through the navel wound. Normally the calf will stand and walk towards the udder to start suckling. If this doesn’t happen assist the calf to suckle.

Let the calf take enough colostrum  

Colostrum is the first thick yellowish milk. Colostrum is rich in antibiotics and minerals good for immunity. Colostrum gives a laxative effect which helps in the expulsion of the muconium. Colostrum also confers the much-needed protection from diseases during this critical time before its body develops its defence mechanism. The calf’s body can absorb these vital ingredients during its first 24 hours of life hence it is critical that a farmer ensures the calf gets enough of it.

Excess colostrum can be milked out otherwise the calf can drink excess which can cause diarrhea. The excess colostrum can be preserved by freezing and used to feed orphaned calves. 

Good diet

Group feeding should be avoided to minimise over feeding or under feeding. Milk feeding should be 3 or 4 times in a day during the first week and can be reduced to two times a day until the calf is 90 days old. Milk should be boiled and cooled to body temperature (39°C) before feeding. The quantity of milk per calf should be 10 per cent its body weight.

To encourage early development of rumen, a calf should be provided with good quality of hay (leguminous hay) by the first week after birth.

Where the calf suckles from the cow’s teats, the udder should be cleaned before the calf nurses. The calf should be provided with fresh and clean water, legume and calf starter at all the time.


Calf house should be well ventilated and protected from direct wind. If possible, put a net around to keep away flies that can be a source of stress to the calf. The house should allow easy access to feed and water as well as easy cleaning. The house should be raised from the ground and have good moisture absorbent bedding. Don’t house calves with grown up animals or in crowded pens that can result in stress. Plan your activities and stick to the schedule.

Prevent diseases 

To prevent diseases, a biosecurity program should be in place and this include monitoring movement of people and animals into and out of the calf pen.  Farm hands should wash their hands before handling calves and any equipment used to feed the calf must be cleaned and never shared between animals without cleaning. The farm hands should wear clean clothes and boots. When doing regular activities on the farm, start with the calf then the adult animals and not the other way round. Keeping calves in individual pens helps farmers to closely monitor for any clinical signs. 

(Dr Othieno won Vet of the Year Award (VOYA) 2016 and works with the Kenya Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Council –KENTTEC, [email protected])      

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