A simple system for first-timers

Every spring a new group of people get the urge to rear 'a few calves' to make some extra income.  This is despite the many others who could tell them that there's very little profit in it.  Here are some points for a very simple system for anyone who plans to rear calves for the first time.  The KIS principle is vital - keep the job simple.

Key points

  • Don't start rearing any calves until mid-August.  Calves are more plentiful by then in the North Island and consequently much cheaper than when they first start coming on the market in July.
  • Rear only 10-12 calves to start off with.  Never be tempted to rear more than 15.
  • Don't buy them from the sale yard - and certainly not in "dribs and drabs" from sale yards and different farms, as there's a high chance you'll get a mixture of infections as a bonus.
  • Find a top dairy farmer who has a good herd of Friesians and make an arrangement to buy and collect the whole dozen calves in one pick up.  The advantage of this is that all the calves will be of similar age, and they will all have had plenty of colostrum.
  • Explain to the farmer that this is your first-time operation and offer him/her $10 more per head above the asking price for their cooperation.  Give the farmer some feedback on how the calves do as this will be a good investment for next season if you want more calves.
  • A small calf weighs <37kg, a medium 37-43kg and big calves are > 43kg. Buy the mediums if you have a choice.  Don't buy the small ones.
  • You'll need:
    • A 20-litre bucket
    • A calf milk feeder with teats for 12 calves
    • A rain-proof and bird-proof meal feeder for the paddock.
    • A paddock hay rack and some good hay.
  • Feed a good quality proprietary milk powder and follow the mixing instructions on the bag - to the letter.  Never cut corners or listen to advice from those who know better than the manufacturer!
  • Offer a good quality calf meal from Day 1.  The calves will start licking it at first but then soon start nibbling the pellets.  Keep feeding this meal right up until they reach at least 100kg.
  • Keep all utensils clean- wash in cold then hot water (in that order) and disinfect daily.
  • If labour is no problem, feed the calves 2 x day for as long as you can be bothered.  Otherwise, feed them 2 x day for the first 2-3 weeks then go on to 1 x day feeding.
  • Have some good shelter in the paddock or free access to a clean shed.
  • As the calves grow, don't increase the liquid and make more work for yourself, but increase the concentration of the powder. Follow the instructions on the bag - exactly.
  • Wean calves off milk at 80kg for Friesians and 70kg for smaller breeds and make sure they have some good clean pasture with grass and clover and not just weeds.
  • Keep the hay racks full of good-quality hay all the time.
  • If the pasture is good and they are eating a lot, restrict the meal fed at pasture to 1kg/head/day.  They'll probably restrict themselves.
  • Calves doing well should be growing close to 1kg/head/day.
  • If they are not doing well, keep feeding them meals for a few more weeks and check their growth rate.
  • Make sure the meal contains a coccidiostat to prevent coccidiosis.
  • Castration is painful to calves. If you want to castrate the bulls, then do it with rubber rings before 3 weeks old. It is best practice to use pain relief.
  • Have all calves disbudded by your disbudding contractor or vet using a local anaesthetic before 6 weeks old. From 1st October 2019, it will be an offence to disbud calves without local anaesthetic.
  • Check with your vet about giving the calves their clostridial vaccinations (blackleg) usually before weaning.
  • Check for lice after weeks 4-6 and treat if needed.
  • You should not need to drench for worms - and before you do, check with your vet.
  • If the weather is awful - put a cover on each calf. Watch for lice under the cover.

Check out the costs

What is the point of rearing calves if you are not going to make any money?  Plenty of people do this every year and generally never realise it.  In theory, everyone should think about costs before they start, but that sounds too much like dry boring theory.  So every year you see people paying crazy prices for the first calves to come on the market (especially autumn-born calves), boosting their capital investment and making any profits a dream.
If you are serious about making a profit or even covering costs, then you must do a partial budget to see how things will work out. Here is a list of items to put in the budget:

  • Calf price.  If you bred it, then at least include the insemination cost or bull charge.
  • Feed: -
    • Colostrum
    • Milk
    • Milk replacer
    • Hay
    • Meal (concentrates)
  • Bedding - shavings
  • Vets - drugs, vaccinations and visits
  • Disbudding/castration
  • Ear tags
  • Deaths.  Plan to keep these below 2-3%
  • Transport
  • Selling commission (6%)
  • Bank interest
  • Power

Note that labour appears at the end of the list because this is where many calf rearers put it!  It should be at the very top of the list.  People say they don't include labour as they feed the calves themselves, or better still (or worse) - their partner feeds them.  If she/he is worth nothing then don't forget to tell them!

The largest items in this total are milk powder at and labour at.  On top of this has to be added cartage and commission at the point of sale which may vary a bit, and the purchase price of the calf which is the critical issue, especially when you see enthusiastic buyers paying big dollars for four-day-old calves.  That makes a very expensive dairy weaner that you could probably buy at 12 weeks having saved yourself all the work!

So based on cold costings, in most years buyers should only be paying half of what they do to make a decent profit.  Initial treatment for scours can cost at least $20 and if you need a vet visit you can add another $100.  Experienced calf rearers stress that it costs the same to rear a bad calf as a good one, so make sure you do the job right and realise what it's costing you.