How Much Milk Replacer to Feed a Calf

By Karen S. Johnson

The most important thing in a newborn calf’s life is intake of colostrum within two to six hours after birth. If the mother is unavailable or otherwise unable to let the baby nurse immediately, you must obtain enough colostrum to give the calf approximately 1 pint per 20 pounds of body weight -- so anywhere from 2 to 4 pints. After the first 24 hours she will need to drink milk replacer. A calf who weighed 80 pounds at birth should consume about 6 1/2 pounds of milk replacer a day, or approximately 8 percent of her birth weight, for three weeks or more.

The Importance of Colostrum

Adequate colostrum intake sets the stage for your calf’s lifelong health. When your calf gets it is just as important as how much. Colostrum contains immunoglobulins G, providing calves with immunity to fight infections. A calf’s ability to absorb these critical antibodies decreases after her first six hours of life, and typically ends 24 hours post-birth.

Colostrum Sources and Feedings

If possible, get a colostrum supply prior to the birth by collecting and freezing it from a mom in your own herd, or purchasing colostrum from your feed store. Ensure it’s colostrum replacement and not a supplement, which contains fewer antibodies. In some cases -- such as a difficult birth -- supplementation may be necessary even if the mother is available. Offer the colostrum as soon as possible within the first six hours. She should receive 1 quart three to four times in the first 24 hours.

Milk Replacer Begins at Day 2

Select a milk replacer that contains a minimum of 22 percent protein and 18 to 22 percent animal or vegetable fat. If it’s cold, your veterinarian may recommend a higher protein and fat content. Read the content label. Your protein source should be derived from milk, or designed specifically for calf milk replacers: whey, skim milk and casein sources are ideal, while soy protein, animal plasma and wheat gluten or isolate are acceptable. Your replacer should have A, D and E vitamins but may contain additional vitamin and mineral supplementation. Don’t feed a medicated replacer without consulting your veterinarian.

Either dry or liquid concentrate milk replacer is acceptable. It should have a cream to light tan color, with a bland yet somewhat pleasant odor.

Feeding the Milk Replacer

A typical calf weighs 50 to 100 pounds at birth, depending on breed, so feed 8 percent of that birth weight in milk replacer per day, divided between two feedings. This amount won’t change until you begin weaning her. Ensure she has continuous access to clean water.

Mix your concentrated milk replacer with warm water, no more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Follow the mixing directions on the package, ensuring that the powder is completely dissolved before feeding. Pour into sanitized bottles. You may need to start her suckling by using your fingers; squirt some milk replacer on one or two fingers and insert them in the calf’s mouth. As she begins to suck, gently place the bottle nipple in her mouth and remove your fingers. Help her establish an optimal feeding position by straddling her, or standing next to her while holding her head up. Don’t let her suck the empty bottle or she’ll get excess air in her stomach. If the calf is too weak or has problems suckling, contact your veterinarian about inserting an esophageal feeder, or stomach tube.

Before long your calf may be able to drink milk replacer from a bucket. You can teach her as you did with the bottle; insert your fingers in the milk replacer and as she begins to suck, gently lower her head toward the milk in the bucket, keeping her nostrils above the milk until she gets the hang of it. Holding or hanging the bucket will prevent her from stepping in it.

Human-fed calves typically become tame, but it can lead to unintentional injuries as they get bigger and anticipate mealtime. If it becomes a problem, wire the bottle or bucket to a fence post.

Supplementing the Milk Replacer and Weaning

About 3 weeks of age, or when your veterinarian recommends it, purchase a high-quality calf starter feed and offer it with some hay. Begin by offering small amounts of feed after she finishes her milk replacer. When she is eating 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of starter feed, you can begin to wean her off the milk replacer. She should be between 4 to 8 weeks old by this time. Weaning can be stressful so keep her usual routine the same. By age 3 months she should be eating 2 to 3 pounds a day, and at 6 months, 3 to 5 pounds -- or as much as she can finish in a day. Give her as much hay as she wants.