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.