Nutritional guidance for dairy beef calves

Explore our nutritional guidance for dairy beef calves, including advice on milk replacers, starter feeds, weaning and managing other changes in feed.

Back to: How to manage dairy beef production

Using milk replacers with dairy beef calves

It is generally recognised that feeding rates for young calves have historically been too low.

Calves for dairy beef production have a target growth rate of at least 0.8 kg per day between birth and weaning.

At weaning, calves should be at least 80 kg.

Current advice for most beef production systems is to feed calves a minimum of 750 g of milk replacer per day.

The table below illustrates how you can achieve feeding calves 750 g per day. However, you must also consider the amount of calf starter feed being eaten at the same time.

Recommended daily quantity of milk replacer for calves

Mixing rate (g/l) Litres fed/day
4 5 6 7 8
150 600 750 900 1,050 1,200
140 560 700 840 980 1,120
130 520 650 780 910 1,400
125 500 625 750 875 1,000

Calculate the energy supplied by the amount of milk replacer fed to a calf using the milk replacer energy calculator. This calculator is suitable for male calves as well as heifers.  

Access our calf milk replacer energy calculator

Find out more about dairy beef production with heifers and steers

How to choose a milk replacer

Many different products and feeding systems are available to calves.

When choosing a milk replacer, you are looking for one that delivers growth rates appropriate to your production system. Then you can continue to use that product.

So that a calf can achieve optimal growth rate in its early life for beef production later on, milk replacer should contain:

  • 20–26% crude protein
  • 18–20% fat

Other essential feeding guidance

It is vitally important that calves have access to clean, fresh water all the time, even when they are drinking milk.

By six weeks old, you should be weaning calves. This will help the calf to develop a healthy rumen which is essential in boosting its health and immunity.   

Drivers of rumen development are:

  • Clean, fresh water supply
  • Good-quality starter feed
  • Clean, fresh straw

How to introduce starter feeds

Starter feeds are designed to promote rumen development, transitioning the calf from a diet based on milk to one based solely on forages and concentrates.

As soon as possible, encourage your calves to eat a grain-based starter feed. Digestion of feeds rich in starch plays an important role in rumen development.

A good calf starter feed should contain:

  • 18% crude protein fresh weight
  • Minimum of 12 MJ of metabolic energy per kilogram in dry matter

So that your calves consume more of this starter feed, it must be free from dust and mould, and offered in clean troughs.

Also, supply your calves with fresh straw in racks to limit the amount of straw they consume. Before weaning, it is important to limit intake of good-quality hay or other forages as they can reduce starter intake and cause the calves to become pot-bellied.

How and when to wean calves

Good management at weaning is important for maintaining good growth rates and minimising disease in dairy beef calves.

A group of calves are ready to wean when they are routinely consuming 1.5 kg per head of high-quality starter feed a day.

Post-weaning, provide straw for the calves as the forage component in the ration.

Transition them slowly to silage when they are around five to six months of age.  

Essential guidance for changing rations

When moving calves to finishing rations that generally contain less forage and more supplementary feeds, there is likely to be increased rumen acidity. This can increase the risk of health problems.

As with weaning, fresh, clean straw should be provided in racks during the transition to ad-lib cereal feeding when you reduce other forages. This will help stimulate the development of the rumen.

How to introduce a new ration

Always introduce a new ration gradually over a period of around two weeks.

Increase amounts of the new ration supplied each day and, at the same time, reduce the amount of original ration. An example of gradually introducing a new ration is shown in the graph.

The length of the change over period really depends on the extent of the difference between the rations. If you are introducing large amounts of concentrates, extend the time period to make the change more slowly.

How to gradually introduce a new ration

Changing rations with trough feeding

If calves are feeding from a trough, the ration should be changed by feeding the ration in this order:

  1. First, two meals per day of no more than 2 kg per feed.
  2. Then, three meals per day, increasing amounts until the cattle do not clear up all the feed.
  3. Lastly, feeding cattle from ad-lib hoppers.

How to assess a change in ration

One of the most important ways to assess a ration is to watch the cattle eating it.

Cattle that are not eating, drinking or sleeping should be ruminating.

Also, look at the consistency of the dung to check it is not too runny or too dry.

How to manage stress during transitions

Transition management refers to a time when the life of a beef animal changes significantly.

This usually occurs when it moves between farms or when its diet changes, for example, at weaning or going from a growing to a finishing ration.

As well as thinking about the transition to a different ration, it is important to minimise stress associated with transport to a new farm, mixing with new cattle and being in different housing.

For more details, explore our guidance on minimising calf stress:

Useful links

See our guide to producing veal from dairy-bred calves

Access the ‘Dairy beef production systems' manual, for further practical advice

If you would like to order a hard copy of the Dairy beef production systems manual, please contact or call 0247 799 0069.