Giving calves the best start

By Katherine DeWitt, a DairyNZ animal care and biosecurity developer 

I’ve seen first-hand the level of care farmers take of their calves and that you do everything you can to give them the best possible start to life.

With calving just around the corner, I know from talking to many of you that you’re beginning to review your systems to see want went well last year and what areas you can improve.

And there are some huge wins from doing this. Planning and preparing with your team not only helps reduce stress levels, but ensures things run smoothly as everyone knows what’s expected and they’re able to hit the ground running when things start to get busy.

Colostrum, liquid gold

When looking at what really helps give your calves the best start in life, I can’t speak highly enough about colostrum, or as some like to call it liquid gold.

Recent New Zealand studies have shown that two-thirds of calves are getting the perfect liquid gold to start them out well. That does mean that about a third of calves don’t get enough good quality colostrum. This can be due to feeding too little, too late, too low a quality, and/or by bacteria contamination.

A quick rule to ensure calves are getting what they need from their colostrum, is using the three Qs – quality, quantity and quickness.


Colostrum quality is measured by the amount of protective antibodies it contains. You can test the quality of your colostrum by using a small tool called a brix refractometer. High quality colostrum measures 22 percent or more on the brix.

It’s ideal if you can feed colostrum fresh, but if you need to keep it for an extended period (even if it’s just a few hours), it’s important to ensure the quality does not decrease. Colostrum should be stored in a lidded drum or vat and stirred regularly.

If possible, refrigerate your colostrum to preserve antibodies and prevent bacteria growth. If refrigeration or freezing isn’t possible, adding potassium sorbate is a good option.


Feed your calves as soon as you can as they can only absorb antibodies within the first 24 hours of birth. Remember, every hour counts when it comes to colostrum.


Calves should be fed 4-6 litres of colostrum within the first 12 hours after they’re born. However, a calf can only take about 1.5-2 litres of liquid into the abomasum (their fourth stomach), so it’s best to aim for two feeds within the first 12 hours of life.

To check if your calves are getting enough high-quality colostrum, you can get your vet to take blood samples for lab analysis from 12 healthy calves between one and seven-days-old. Doing this at the beginning and peak of calving will give you the best insight.

There is no better feeling than seeing your calves grow strong and healthy, and giving them the right quality and quantity of colostrum within the first 24 hours will do just that. It will also help your heifer replacements reach target weights more easily and see them go on to be the pride of your herd.

For more information on caring for calves, visit

World leading colostrum management:

  • Feed calves 4 litres (or more for heavier calves) of gold colostrum within the first 12 hours of life.
  • Test the quality of colostrum from individual cows and only feed newborn calves colostrum with brix readings over 22 percent.
  • Store colostrum in a lidded drum or vat and stir regularly. Colostrum should be refrigerated (at 4°C) or preserved using a chemical preservative such as potassium sorbate.

“I believe we’ve always raised good animals, but now we’re raising good animals with less stress on the team, and we’re achieving targets quicker.”

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