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Raising Calves – 1940 to the Present

It may seem strange, but I have been involved with dairy cows all my life. My parents said that they kept me in a pen in the barn as a toddler, so I wouldn’t fall in the manure gutter or get kicked by a cow while they milked or fed the herd. I’m sure I was there as an infant too. I grew up helping them with milking, feeding and tending to the calves. As I got older the calves were my responsibility. I took pride in the healthy calves that I raised.

Looking back, calf raising has really evolved at Cedar Summit Farm. When I was young, calves were raised in one big pen that we kept bedded with straw to keep them clean. My physical fitness was tested once a year when it came time to muck out the calf pen. The foot and a half of bedding manure had to be pealed off a half-inch layer at a time with a manure fork.  No wonder the High School football coach wanted me on the team.

When we took over the farm operation in 1969 one of my goals was to raise calves in pens that we didn’t have to clean by hand. The old chicken house was remodeled into a calf barn. We heard that really healthy calves should be raised in individual pens so the new barn had pens that could be disassembled and cleaned with a skid steer loader. After we purchased our first skid loader we made the door wider so we could get in with the loader and clean the pens mechanically. Even though the calf barn was well ventilated we still lost a few calves due to sickness.

By the 1980’s the calf barn pens started to deteriorate, so we purchased a few calf hutches where we could tether or pen the calves individually and they would each have their own shelter. We found that raising each calf by itself took a lot of time and work, and besides calves are a herding animal, so they need to be with other calves.

In New Zealand, the calves are raised in groups of about 10, nursing on rubber teats that are fastened to a 55 gallon barrel. The teats are about the height of a cow’s teat and are attached to a hose that reaches the bottom of the barrel. A good concept because the calf has to suck hard, and in doing so generates a lot of saliva that acts as a buffer to the calf’s digestive system.

After a lot of trial and error, over the years our calf loss still ranged from 10 to 20%. The lights suddenly came on one night in 2006 when Florence and I were discussing our calf losses and her women’s intuition kicked in. She said “Why don’t you just leave them with their Moms”?

We have been doing that ever since with very good success as our losses went from the mid teens down to less than 5% loss most years. The calves now are very vigorous and healthy. The mothers now show the calves what to eat and how to behave. I like to say that our calves are now more socially adjusted.

 

Comments

terrie adams

Love the stories about growing up with the calves. “Mother Nature” appeals to all the senses and there is no other calling, no other work environment that can offer so much sensory stimulation and knowledge of how to live well on this earth. Thanks for sharing, Dave.

Cedar Summit Farm

Terrie, thank you for your kind thoughts.

Kristin

What does this calf raising method do to the cow’s milk production? Are you milking the cow during this time as well as leaving the calf on? And is this how you raise heifers? Or bull/steer calves too? Thanks!

Cedar Summit Farm

Dear Kristin,

Thank you for your great questions. Yes, the cow is milked twice a day during the time that the calf is nursing. By the time a calf is two months old, it is drinking two and a half to three gallons of milk a day. So yes indeed, it does reduce milk production. All of our calves (males and females) are allowed to nurse all they want. As organic producers we must feed whole milk and not milk replacer, so we let the calves get the milk themselves.

Kristin

Thanks! Do you have any issues with the cows not coming up to the milking parlor with their calves. Whenever we have attempted this, after 3 or 4 days, we have issues with the cows coming up for milking.

Cedar Summit Farm

Sometimes the calves are nursing when we are bringing the cows in, so it tales a little coaxing. The calves frequently go into the barn with the mothers. We didn’t realize what a positive effect this practice had on the animals, until we started milking the first heifers raised in this way. They have no initial fear of the barn, because they remember going in with their mothers as calves.

Anna

Hi!
You site is great and it’s a pleasure to see a family farm making a living on grass fed milk! I know you are busy, but wanted to ask you some questions because we are transitioning to grass fed. It is simply the best for all concerned, cows and family.

I was wondering how you have your parlor set up because you can allow the calves access to the parlor while you are milking. Or am I missing something? Do the calves only go to the barn and not into the parlor? If they don’t go into the parlor how do you separate them when they arrive? We are milking with bucket milkers, so I can see how it would work for us, but if you are using a pipeline system how do you get them all in there? (This is just curiosity because we would like to milk 4 cows at a time instead of 1 and so now space will be a consideration.)

Are you weaning your heifers at 2 months? If so, have you found any significant difference than when (if ever) you fed them longer. If you are weaning them at that age do you see any sucking issues with them when you separate them? How about handling them later on, what are your experiences? We have a practice of letting the calf with the cow for a month, then bottle feeding for 5 months. We have found that our calves (we keep the steers/bulls for beef) get larger faster and are much heartier and healthier that way. Because we bottle feed them (especially the heifers) for another 5 months we find that they are very tractable, and have learned to tie and lead. The calves are fed whole milk, not replacer at 2 gallons a day for 5 months and then it is tapered off. Since what you are doing is working well it would be something for us to consider because you are surely seeing more milk over that period than we are, I am just curious about the details of it.

Also, it looks like you are milking a composite herd, how long has it taken you to find the mix that is working for you? What do you think was the most significant change you made regarding your breeding program? Did you amend the herd you had by planned breeding or did you reduce your herd and refill with stock that was already grass fed?

I know I have asked a lot of questions, and this might not be the place to discuss all of it, so if email would be preferable, please feel free to email me. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
Anna

Cedar Summit Farm

Dear Anna,

Thank you for all of the great questions!

Our parlor and holding pen are In a converted 160×34 tie stall barn. One third is a 16 unit swing parlor and the rest is a holding pen. The holding pen area still has a 6 foot wide feed alley on each side divided by the ridge row that was kept in tact. The calves are able to walk through the ridge row and lay down in the old feed alley. During our extreme cold weather all the calves do that. During more temperate weather once the calves realize Mom will come back out, they learn to lay down to wait by the parlor exit.

We usually wean at 8-10 weeks but would prefer to leave the calves with the cow for 3-4 months. The demands for milk at our creamery usually precludes that. Our organic status does not allow us to use replacer. We see very little of calves nursing other calves after weaning.

We have not been happy with our herd’s production. We know that our land needs some amendments to grow more high energy grass. The weather conditions of last spring and summer have not allowed us to make decent feed, thus milk production has suffered.

We have used many breeds in our cross breeding program. For the last eight years we have used young bulls from the very best cows in our herd. These bull mothers had to calve the same month for at least six years and have consistently high protein and butterfat percentages.

Please let me know if I’ve missed any of your questions, or if you would like more info!