There are two ways to keep calves on the smallholding writes Heidi M Sands.

One is the more natural way of allowing the cow to rear her own calf or the calves from other cows, and the other is to rear the calf by hand. Rearing calves by hand can seem an attractive proposition and can in the right circumstances even bring in a little profit or provide future cattle for the smallholding. There are of course various options and pros and cons to consider when thinking of hand rearing a calf, all of which are worth consideration.


Calves for rearing by hand are generally those that are considered surplus to the dairy industry, or those that have been orphaned. Dairy calves tend to be taken from their mothers shortly after birth. If you are lucky the calf will have had colostrum from its mother before being removed. These calves may be pure bred or crossed with a beef breed and are available either directly from the farm or through a local auction mart. Calves of around 10 days old are the best bet. It’ll be easier for you to determine how healthy they are at this age.

Avoid any calves that are scouring, coughing, have sore or swollen looking navels, sunken eyes or a dull looking coat. By this age they should be feeding well; either from a bottle or bucket and be starting to nibble on hay and calf creep.


Buying calves straight from the farm, especially if the farm is local to you is advantageous. Calves from a farm close to your smallholding will be acclimatised to your own area; bringing calves in from a distance can sometimes be problematic in this respect as they’ll have little in the way of resistance to bugs and disease in your area. You’ll also be restricting travel time which is better for young calves and if you need help or advice the breeder will be right on your doorstep. You will also be able to see the type of cattle in the herd that your calves have been born into and you’ll be able to ask questions and glean information too.

Buying at auction can be exciting and difficult in equal measures. If you are a novice take a seasoned farmer with you and ask him to check over any calf you are considering. Ensure the calf is healthy and decide how much you want to pay before any bidding begins; don’t go over your predetermined ceiling or get carried away with the bidding.

Decide too whether you want male or female calves. This will largely be determined by what you hope to do with them. If you are looking to rear a female calf with the hope of keeping her and breeding from her in the future then pick the best calves you can find. If you fancy rearing calves for producing beef; dairy beef, even pure bred does have a market, then both male and female calves of a lesser value can be considered.

Dairy bull calves should be castrated and unless you are familiar with the procedure it is best to call the vet for advice. Likewise any calf that shows signs of carrying horn buds should be de-horned unless your calves are from a recognised rare breed that are usually horned.

Moving young calves, even short distances can cause shock and open youngstock to the risk of infection. Those that have been through the mart and mixed with other calves are at greater risk.

When calves arrive on your smallholding they will require warm, dry and draught free housing. Well strawed individual pens are best for this, although dependant on the time of year and weather conditions calf kennels may be considered. However you choose to house your calves good nutrition and hydration is important.


Many people will offer reconstituted powered calf milk as a first option (read the bag for mixing instructions, suitability for the age of calves and amount to feed) or simplify matters by offering 60g of glucose in a litre of warm water for the first two or three feeds before going onto the powdered calf milk. Clean water should always be available and a commercial calf rearing pellet should also be offered in small amounts.

Milk feeding can be either from a bucket or a bottle and if you know how your calf was fed by its breeder then try to continue in the same way at least for a short while. If you’ve no idea how your calf has been given its milk then choose your preferred option.

Bucket feeding is easier in the long term as all you need to do is prepare the milk and pour it into the bucket. The calf then either drinks straight from the bucket, usually held on the pen side in a bucket holder, or from a teat on the side of the bucket. Bottle fed calves obviously suck from a teat, but calves fed in this way can be a bit boisterous as they get older.

Teaching a calf to drink from a bucket or suck from a teat can take up to two days. A teat can be offered straight into the mouth and honey can be smeared over the teat to encourage the calf to suck. Different types and sizes of teat are available. Calves from smaller breeds such as Jerseys will be better using a smaller teat and if in doubt ask advice from your agricultural supplier.

Once the calf realises that sucking produces a warm stream of milk into its mouth you are usually over the worst, but it does take perseverance in some cases. Teaching calves to drink from a bucket is no easier. Calves will readily suck your fingers and it’s a matter of getting the calf to suck your fingers while drawing its head towards the bucket and into the milk. As it sucks it will draw some milk into its mouth. It’s then a small matter of slowly removing your fingers so that the calf can drink from the bucket. This procedure will need repeating until it learns to do it without the aid of your fingers.


Milk feeding generally lasts for about eight weeks, with milk feeds being reduced towards the end of the eight weeks. At the same time the commercial calf feed is increased until it has replaced the milk completely. Calves can then be housed in loose pens in batches of similar ages.

As the spring arrives calves can be introduced to the outdoor life and let out to graze, with the growing grass providing much of their fodder. Continue to feed a small amount of calf pellets or similar while they are out at grass as this encourages them to come to you so that you can keep an eye out for any problems and provide additional minerals if needed.

Calves can succumb to disease quite easily. Keep your calves clean and dry, removing and replacing dirty bedding before it gets filthy. Always wash bottles, teats and buckets thoroughly. Consider vaccination against infections that cause pneumonia and scouring. Older calves will need worming and treating for fluke if you are in a susceptible area. Discuss just what will be needed on your farm with your vet and always treat a sick calf promptly.


This article was first published in Smallholder magazine. For your copy subscribe here or call 01778 392011.