Saturday, January 7, 2012

Raising Calves...part 1...

Raising calves is one of the most important jobs on a dairy farm.  Without healthy calves, there would be no good replacement heifers!

When a calf is born, we allow it to remain with it's mother for a short period of time.  For example, if it's born at night, it remains with her overnight until morning milking.  She spends a lot of time cleaning off her calf and getting it up and walking.  I'm always amazed at how quickly a calf is up and tottering around after birth.  Sometimes it's as soon as twenty minutes or so.

It's crucial that the cow gets plenty of water and good food, usually dry hay, as soon as possible...if she doesn't want to eat, that's the first sign of trouble.

The first thing we do to the calf after separation is spray the umbilical cord with iodine.  This disinfects the cord and helps it to dry up, preventing infection.

Next, we milk the cow and feed the calf some of her first milk, called colostrum.  It's full of nutrients that boost the calf's immune system.  We us this two quart  bottle...

Why do we separate the calves and feed them by bottle rather than letting them drink directly from the cow?

It's fine if they drink from the cow while they're together.  However, by feeding them by bottle, we know exactly how much milk they are drinking.  And as we all know, bacteria grows in damp places.  We can minimize infection in the cow's udder (mastitis) by cleaning and drying her teats thoroughly by hand before milking.  The health of the cow is very important, and we also want the milk to be of the highest possible quality.

What does a calf's diet consist of?

For the first week or so, they get only milk.  Some farmers feed calves with milk replacer, a type of formula for calves.  We used to use milk replacer, but found it to be very expensive.  So...we now use the milk that drains from the pipeline after milking to feed the calves, and have found them to be just as healthy!   We warm the milk by setting the buckets or bottles in warm water...just like you would do to a baby's bottle.

This yellow looking milk is colostrum from yesterday's fresh cows...

For the first few days, we feed the calves from a bottle.  After they're off to a good start, I'll teach them to drink from a bucket.  Sometimes that's tricky, because to drink from a bottle, they tip their head up...and to drink from a bucket they have to put their nose down.  Most of them are fast learners...some of them...well...let's just say they're a challenge!

How long do we keep the calves?

If the calf is a heifer, we hope to raise her to be a replacement heifer who joins the milking herd at age two, after the birth of her first calf.

If it's a bull, we only keep him a few days.  A bull calf is of no use to a dairy herd, since we do most of our breeding artificially, so he will be sent to market.  Occasionally we will castrate one of these bull calves and raise him as a steer for our own use or to share with friends.

As this last group of newborns is raised, I'll try to update you on what they're eating and how they're doing!


  1. My sister lives on a dairy and I know how much you have to watch these little buggers. Great job with explaining what is going on.

  2. That is so interesting. I figured that you couldn't use milk replacer. I know how expensive it is for the goats. Nice that you get enough milk to use from the pipes. It doesn't go to waste and it's good for the calves!

  3. Wow Alica you are busy I remember doing all that. I especially liked being covered in sweet sticky milk replacer and I swear the little calf butting and laughing at me at the same time. You are a very good teacher of farm life. B

  4. Well and tastefully written. Having grown up on a dairy farm I just assumed everybody knew a lot of things you just explained. I had to get out in the real world to find most people don't even know what a heifer is or when she becomes a cow; or even the difference between a bull and a steer.

    As much work as dairy farming is, I do miss a lot of it.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this post and I am looking forward to Part 2!!

  6. Love this post....they are so cute ! And yes you are running a Maternity Ward--bless you!!
    Alica at my blog their is an award waiting for you. Congrats..

  7. Just fascinating! And man what bottles : )

  8. That would be the hard part for me, separating the calves from the cows. We have a beef cow/calf operation, so the calves stay with the cows for about 8 months. I understand it's different in dairy and I'm not criticizing, don't get me wrong. Business is business. Our busy time for calving starts in about a month here in Kansas.
    Thanks for sharing all the info and pics.


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