10 golden rules of calf selection

Baby calves in a barn

Profitable calf rearing

Article supplied by Dr B.W. Schouten, BVSc
Veterinary Consultant to AgriVantage

The decisions you make on Day 1 could make or break your calf rearing venture. This is the moment you select a calf and pay the market price.


As a rearer, your main objective must be to minimise the mortality rate to less than 5% and the morbidity rates (calves treated and recovered) to less than 30%. Any level of illness above these levels will greatly compromise your profits and your own stress levels.


So, how do you choose a quality calf and, therefore, minimise the rearing risk?


Always remember the “10 Golden Rules”:


  1. Calves must weigh 38kg+ and ideally 40kg+ for Friesian or Friesian crossbreds.
  2. Must be over 4 days of age – so navel cords must be dry. If the cord is not dry, come back at a later date.
  3. Must have had colostrum for a minimum of 4 days – to establish a good immune protection against neonatal diseases.
  4. No twins – they are never over 38 kgs.
  5. No induced calves – these are never over 38kgs and likely have a poorly developed immune system.
  6. Must be healthy:
    • bright, shiny coat
    • eyes bright and ears up
    • walking freely - any calves that are lame or have swollen joints should be rejected
    • willingness to suck or bunt you
    • navel cords dry, not swollen or painful.
  1. No freebies. If calves are not suitable for the bobby calf lorry, they are unsuitable for you.
  2. Buy from as few sources as possible – preferably directly from the farmer or specialised agent. If you must buy at the saleyards, take care to select only the best quality calves and from as few sales as possible.
  3. If possible, buy calves from a Rotavirus vaccinated herd.
  4. No scouring calves should be selected.


Never break the rules, no matter how good the deal looks. These rules are set up to ensure that you select healthy calves and get off to a flying start.


The importance of colostrum and especially the timing of the first feed of colostrum virtually dials in the survival rate.


Even the number of individual sick days is closely related to the colostrum intake and immune status of the calf established in the first 5 days of life.


The most common disease in the first week of life is navel infections - so inspect the navel carefully.


Reject any with painful, wet or swollen navels or start immediate treatment with Penicillin at full therapeutic levels for at least 5 days.


Finally, calves should be transported to the calf barn in a humane manner.


  • Trailers should be covered and clean.
  • No more than 5 calves per pen.
  • Ensure there’s suitable bedding in the pens – any soft material, ideally sawdust (at least 300mm deep), old carpet or marine matting.
  • Spray the bedding with a good virucidal spray prior to each trip.


Get them home, place in a dry and drought free pen, spray the cords with Iodine and let them REST.


A warm first feed of electrolytes 4 hours later will greatly reduce the transport stress.


Now you are ready to start milk feeding.