Katherine DeWitt

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 what 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% 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.

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%.
  • Store colostrum in a lidded drum or vat and stir regularly. Colostrum should be refrigerated (at 4C) or preserved using a chemical preservative such as potassium sorbate.

Five-star calf care team effort

Southland farm owner and calf rearer Alan Topham and his team held a brainstorming session, led by his sharemilker, to look at how they could take their calf care up a notch.

Together the team identified that milking their colostrum cows after lunch, before milking their other cows, would not only benefit their calves but the team as well.

“Everyone helps at the shed, including our calf rearers, so there’s extra staff on hand to make the job easier and they’re refreshed after lunch. After the colostrum cows are milked, the team go about their jobs, whether it’s milking or feeding calves.”

In addition, they also started using a brix refractometer to test the quality of their colostrum and were surprised by the results.

“Not as many cows hit the high brix result as I would’ve thought,” he says.

Alan says to ensure their calves get colostrum soon after they’re born, they pick up calves from the paddock two or three times a day, and more in poor weather conditions.

“There are less calves in the trailer and less calves to train to feed at once, so it’s much more manageable.”

Alan says these simple changes have made a big difference.

“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.”

Level up your calf care

Whether you’re starting out in farming, or have 20 years’ experience, there’s always something new to learn, and calving is no exception.

To help take your calf care to the next level, DairyNZ has created a new online tool.

The Calf Care Toolkit, available on the DairyNZ website, allows you to identify areas where improvements can be made, and suggests how to make these improvements.

All you need to do is answer 12 simple questions and you receive instant, tailored, feedback.

The tool was developed with input from farmers, including Alan, so you’ll get practical information and advice directly from other farmers.

To see how you take your calf care to the next level, visit dairynz.co.nz/calf-care-toolkit

More? on caring for calves, visit dairynz.co.nz/calving

Katherine DeWitt is a DairyNZ animal care and biosecurity developer