Considerations for Choosing and Raising Bottle Calves for Beef

Considerations for Choosing and Raising Bottle Calves for Beef

It seems like most of the time when we talk about current research in calf rearing, we are mostly considering heifer calves raised as dairy replacements. However, unless using sexed semen, a calf has a 50% chance of being male or female. As a result, there are many calves being raised for veal or beef. Many of these are male dairy breeds, cross breeds, or even possibly free- martin heifers.

Current research also takes much into consideration for raising calves for meat.  The University of Guelph recently reported on some great information regarding choosing and raising calves for veal or beef.

Buying the Right Calf is Critical

Success in raising calves sourced from other farms or auctions, has much to do with the animal you choose. Certain characteristics at purchase have been found to have an impact on health, survival, and calf growth.

  • Body Weight: body weight upon arrival has been found to have the greatest impact on the health, survival, and growth. When purchasing calves from auctions or other farms choose calves > 90 lbs. (>45 kg).
  • Sunken Flank: auction calves exhibiting a sunken flank are 1.5 times more likely to die during the growing period. A sunken flank is related to how much the animal was fed before it left the source farm, and dehydration caused by length of transit. Dehydration is the second greatest contributing factor to performance of purchased calves.
  • Age: Research supports that calves not transported until at least 8 days of age will have a better chance to avoid illness, die, and will have better growth than calves transported at a younger age.
  • Umbilical Infection: calves with an umbilical infection are 2.4 times more likely to die than healthy calves. Prevention of infection starts at the source farm. A clean maternity area, clean housing, and excellent colostrum management are all factors that play into a healthy navel.  When sourcing calves directly from farms it may be beneficial to offer premiums to encourage good management for the calves that will be purchased,
  • Diarrhea: do not purchase sick calves. Calves that are sick should stay at the source farm until illness passes. Purchasing sick calves will only spread disease to your facility. 

Management Considerations

  • Identify high risk calves upon arrival. Treat if needed and house separately.
  • Palpate navel to identify infection.
  • Consult with your veterinarian on how to handle any high-risk calves that might make it to your farm. Discuss treatments, electrolyte therapy, or increased nutrition for sick calves and light weight calves.
  • Manage the environment. Ensure your facility has proper ventilation and that pre-weaning pens allow 35 sq. feet (10.7 sq. meters) per calf.
  • Sort and house cattle by source, sex, age, and health status.


Unless they are being raised for veal, it is very typical for calves being raised for beef to be fed only 2 qts. twice daily of a 20:20 milk replacer. This feeding style is popular because it is economical and encourages early starter intake. Once calves are consuming 2lbs/day for at least three consecutive days, of an 18-20% protein starter feed they can be transitioned to concentrate feeds which are much more affordable than milk replacer. 

In cold weather, or for increased energy for growth and immune function, 2 qts. of a 20:20 milk replacer is not enough. Even calves raised for beef can benefit from a higher plane of nutrition coming from milk. Evaluate your calf performance and visit with your nutritionist considering recommendations regarding the amount of milk fed, or even choosing a different milk replacer formula to accomplish your goals for health, and performance.


Written by Mariah Gull, M.S.

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