Back to basics calf care: Vitamins and minerals matter when it comes to calf health

By Lilian Schaer, Agricultural Writer

Proper nutrition is important for calves of all ages and stages of growth so they can grow and stay healthy by being able to fight off disease. That includes making sure that calves are fed a balanced ration and are given appropriate levels of vitamins and minerals. Minerals include both macrominerals—those required in relatively large amounts—and micro or trace minerals that animals need in much smaller amounts.

Research has shown that calves with nutritional deficiencies are less able to ward off the stressors of events like weaning or co-mingling, for example. Here are some important vitamins and minerals that play key roles in calf health and development.


Vitamins support many important metabolic processes in calves—what types of vitamins they need and in what amounts depends on their age and stage of production. Calves will get most vitamins from their feed sources but may need some supplements to ensure they’re receiving what they need.

Vitamin A is often low in newly born calves. Signs of deficiency include rough coat, dull eyes, diarrhea, and pneumonia, which can lead to lower feed efficiency and greater disease susceptibility. Calves may need extra vitamin A during stressful periods like weaning or transport.

Vitamin D is important for healthy teeth and bone development. Calves with decreased growth, weakness, a stiff gait, or laboured breathing may be lacking vitamin D.

Vitamin E fosters muscle development and is often fed together with the trace mineral selenium. And vitamin K is required for blood clotting. In the early stages of their lives, calves receive vitamin B through milk but once their rumens are developed, this vitamin, along with vitamin C, is synthesized by microorganisms in the gut.


Zinc is an important trace mineral that supports a healthy calf metabolism, making sure that the animal digests and uses the feed it consumes properly. Zinc also boosts immune system development, a critical stage in early calf life, resulting in less sickness and healthier calves.

Research has shown that zinc can strengthen cattle hooves, which means less opportunity for pathogenic microbes to enter and begin causing foot disease. Calves that might be zinc-deficient will show signs of excessive salivation, listlessness, and scaly lesions.


Another trace mineral, selenium, helps boost normal growth and fertility, and helps prevent disease challenges like calf scours by contributing to healthy immune systems. In calves, selenium deficiency can result in a condition called nutritional muscular dystrophy or white muscle disease.

Selenium is passed from the cow to the calf through placenta, so making sure cows are consuming enough of the mineral is also important. The cow’s ration should be supplemented with selenium, and it might also be necessary to give calves a selenium injection after birth.

The key is balanced nutrition

In order for vitamins and minerals to be as beneficial as possible to calves, they have to be administered at an appropriate level and in a form that animals can easily digest. This will vary from farm to farm and there is no one-size-fits-all vitamin and mineral program.

For younger calves, check the tags on your milk replacer to ensure you’re providing balanced nutrition. For older, weaned calves, it’s recommended to have feed stuffs tested and to consult with a ruminant nutritionist who can help formulate the most ideal ration for your herd.

This project was funded by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a five-year federal-provincial-territorial initiative.