Calf - Calf Rearing Systems

Calf Rearing Systems

The single suckler system of rearing calves is similar to that occurring naturally in wild cattle, where each calf is suckled by its own mother until it is weaned at about nine months old. This system is commonly used for rearing beef cattle throughout the world.

Cows kept on poor forage (as is typical in subsistence farming) produce a limited amount of milk. A calf left with such a mother all the time can easily drink all the milk, leaving none for human consumption. For dairy production under such circumstances, the calf's access to the cow must be limited, for example by penning the calf and bringing the mother to it once a day after partly milking her. The small amount of milk available for the calf under such systems may mean that it takes a longer time to rear, and in subsistence farming it is therefore common for cows to calve only in alternate years.

In more intensive dairy farming, cows can easily be bred and fed to produce far more milk than one calf can drink. In the multi-suckler system, several calves are fostered onto one cow in addition to her own, and these calves' mothers can then be used wholly for milk production. More commonly, calves of dairy cows are fed formula milk from a bottle or bucket from soon after birth.

Purebred female calves of dairy cows are reared as replacement dairy cows. Most purebred dairy calves are produced by artificial insemination (AI). By this method each bull can serve very many cows, so only a very few of the purebred dairy male calves are needed to provide bulls for breeding. The remainder of the male calves may be reared for beef or veal; however, some extreme dairy breeds carry so little muscle that rearing the purebred male calves may be uneconomic, and in this case they are often killed soon after birth and disposed of. Only a proportion of purebred heifers are needed to provide replacement cows, so often some of the cows in dairy herds are put to a beef bull to produce crossbred calves suitable for rearing as beef.

Veal calves may be reared entirely on milk formula and killed at about 18 or 20 weeks as "white" veal, or fed on grain and hay and killed at 22 to 35 weeks to produce red or pink veal.

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