Feeding the calves was my first duty, which I loved, when I came to this farm 38 years ago (as a college student looking for a farm job—but that’s another story!).  We fed whole milk, from bottle or bucket, to calves in individual hutches or pens, transitioning to calf starter for weaning at about 2 months of age, according to conventional wisdom for dairy farming. 

We later tried feeding in groups with nipple-barrels, which was literally a run-around, so then my husband “straightened out the barrel” into a fence-line milk bar, which worked better, but still it was tricky to make sure all the calves were getting their share, since they drank at different rates and some were pushier than others.

When we stopped feeding grain, we started feeding more milk and weaning later.  It is interesting to read some of the current recommendations even in conventional dairy magazines to feed more milk.  It seems that calves were made to thrive on milk! It takes time for their rumens to develop to really utilize forage, but once that happens, if they’ve gotten a good start on milk, they really take off.

Now we usually keep calves on milk till at least four months of age, sometimes longer. Most of our calves are raised on the dam or a nurse cow, with a few on bottle or bucket.  Steer calves will usually get milk longer, since we want them to thicken up to yield well for beef.  We don’t want the heifer calves to get too fat, so we often wean them on the earlier side.  It also depends on the grass quality.  Like everything, it just takes the stockman’s eye to figure out the best strategy for each animal.

Getting the Calf Started

Of course, every calf needs an ample supply of colostrum as soon after birth as possible, ideally in the first couple hours, for the valuable antibodies it provides.  Most of our calves jump up and figure out how to nurse the cow within this time frame. 

If a calf is having a hard time figuring it out, or if it’s especially cold, we work with it to help it latch on, getting it sucking on a finger and then switching to the teat.  If this doesn’t work, we will hand milk a little colostrum from the cow into a bottle (I like to use a plastic mayonnaise jar), screw a soft nipple on it, and get the calf started that way, then once it’s excited about the milk, it’s not too hard to coax it to the udder. 

We’ve found that if we give the calf all its first feeding from the bottle, then it will look for the bottle next time, so the sooner we can get it finding the udder for itself, the better.

 We keep some colostrum in the freezer for emergencies. The best colostrum to save is the first milking, within 12 hours of calving. It should be thick and rich, preferably from older cows, since they’ve been challenged by more pathogens so they would have more antibodies.

When I first came to the farm, you were considered a failure as a dairyman if you let the calf suck its dam more than the first feeding, if even that.  (Of course, for some dairies, bottle-feeding is the answer for their situation and calves can certainly thrive with it.) I like how raising calves on the dam or on nurse cows has become acceptable practice in grass dairying circles.  We certainly find the calves are healthier on a cow.  We love seeing the calves run joyously around the pasture on a summer evening, getting their exercise in the fresh air.

Making Calves Easy to Handle

One drawback of leaving the calves run with the cows is they don’t tend to like people as much as calves that are handfed, so they can be more skittish. We compensate for this by doing a little extra handling of the calves as individuals.  Since we want all of our cows to be very calm and manageable, since we often sell family cows, it’s worth the bit of extra time it takes.

We used to wait till weaning to halter train and “civilize” the calves, but we have found they can get a bit too big and angry by then, so now we try to start at a younger age, anytime from one week to 6 weeks or so.

We start this by keeping the calf in a pen and letting the cow out with the herd during the day and night, letting her in to feed the calf twice a day.  After the calf is used to being in the pen and being in closer quarters with us moving around it and talking to it and associating us with being rejoined to its dam for feeding, we tie it up with a halter.  The calf may put up quite a ruckus when first haltered, but that’s just because it’s all new and scary for it, so we just tie it up snugly and keep an eye on it so it doesn’t choke. Within half an hour they will usually relax and start eating hay again.

Halter training works best if the calf is led to a reward, so we lead it to the dam at each feeding.  Then we will start touching it, scratching it, maybe first along the back, or under the neck and brisket, whatever it will accept.  My daughters are especially good at finding each calf’s “sweet spot” so it will really relax and start trusting them.  They find that once the calf trusts and likes them, it is easier to lead.

This process takes a couple weeks or so, then we let the calf back out with the herd until weaning.  Weaning time is also less stressful since the calves have already had experience being penned up and handled.

Some calves take longer than others to tame down, and some become more friendly than others. Even those that don’t become total pets are still more quiet than if they hadn’t been handled and are perfectly workable in a group setting.  We’ve found they also mellow with age.  Just like people, the young ones can be a little rowdier and spunkier, and with time and patient training they settle down more.

Nurse Cow Management

We have visited with dairymen who raise their calves on a separate nurse cow herd, which is another way of doing it.   This was standard practice on many dairy farms before milking machines.

We have picked up some tricks to grafting a new calf onto a cow that is not its dam.  This can work seamlessly if two cows calve in the same pen and we just remove one of the cows, or a cow spontaneously adopts a new calf in the herd, but more often we have to take some steps to make the new bond. 

We may get the surrogate mom into our headlock chute and let the new calf in to nurse, perhaps with her original calf, too.  If the cow is inclined to kick the calf, we will tie her around the middle to the side of the chute.  Sometimes we might have to do this for a few sessions before the cow gets used to the new routine. 

When my late husband was growing up in the 1940’s, with his family hand milking a small herd of Milking Shorthorns for a cream route, his first job was managing the calves on the nurse cows.  He was obviously proud of his duties, making sure the littler calves got their fair share and the cow accepted the calves she was feeding.  He noted that once the cow can smell that it’s her milk that’s going through the calf, she will accept it as her own calf.

There’s Just Something About Those New Calves

I still love raising the calves, maybe even more so now that we use a less labor-intensive system.  As a conservation breeder, there’s nothing like the thrill of a new heifer calf, or the bull calf a customer has been waiting to get for a herd sire. We get excited about their genetic potential, so they give us hope for the future.

Dutch Belted calf