There is always something new I am learning about farming, sometimes from my husband and sometimes from other dairy farms and research. Caring for a calf was definitely not something I grew up with; it’s a very important part of my life now and one of my main jobs on the farm, the growth of our herd depends on it and I’m always clicking on links to educate myself. A lot of thought and care goes into how we care for the animals on our farm, it’s like being the mom to a whole group of four month olds – all the time. Calves have a fragile immune system at birth, they obviously cannot communicate with us, and from the beginning they know how to move around but have no idea where they are going. The care for these new calves begins before they are even born.
Our expecting cows are dried off from producing milk approximately 60 days before they calve; they have a clean barn, dirt lot, and cement feeding area that is separate from the milking cows. I don’t know why but it seems 90% of the time a cow will deliver her calf in the dirtiest space possible; it is also most likely that she will pick the worst weather conditions. Calves are born throughout the year on a dairy farm that includes hot August heat and frigid January winters. This little guy was born in the fall when things around here were awfully wet and muddy; he looked pretty dirty when I found him after morning milking. Welcome to the herd little one and now it is my job to keep him healthy; whether it is a female or male calf they all receive the same special care. Since newborn calves don’t have any immune system built up yet, keeping him in this environment is not the best option for our farm.
We house our calves in individual hutches, it’s a clean and comfortable home where I can monitor their overall health, food intake, and output. We layer each hutch with sand, fresh sawdust, and a thick layer of straw in the winter to keep them dry, warm, and germ-free. To help boost the calves immune system we want them to get their mother’s colostrum as soon as possible; colostrum is full of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and antibodies that will help them fight off bacteria and viruses.
Shortly after my children were born at the hospital they were given immunizations and vaccines to help protect them, and with my youngest being born during the fall the hospital had strict rules about visitors and the likely hood that they might expose him to unnecessary germs. I like to treat my calves the same way, they are given necessary vaccines like a vitamin boost and a guard again scours (diarrhea). We monitor how much fluids the calf gets and make sure the output is normal, and this helps us detect illnesses before they become a bigger problem. It also helps us avoid transferring illness’ from one calf to the next.
At 3 days old our calves are transitioned from their mother’s milk to milk replacer morning and night, and given free choice water and starter grain. We choose to feed milk replacer because we find it to be more convenient and consistent for our calves. Calves remain in the hutch until they are around 60 days old and strong enough to be in group pens with other calves of the same age. By this time they have been weaned from drinking milk and start consuming dry hay in additionto the grain.
The importance of raising a healthy calf in the safest way is what leads each individual farm towards their calf routine; I have talked to many farmers with protocols very similar to ours and some very different. Moving calves into hutches has always felt like the right thing to do on our farm because it allows us to provide that one-on-one care with the calf; the future of our herd depends on the care these babies receive. And truthfully, being present on the farm gives you insight to the bigger picture…
Sometimes cows cannot get up after a delivery; they are too weak to care for their calf.
Sometimes cows are not mother-ly; there have been times when they will try to injure their calf.
Sometimes cows accidently hurt calves; calves get stepped on because they are small and tend to trail behind.
And so sometimes, we need to put a little more trust in the people who specialize in their industry. Every decision we make on the farm stems from the love and care required to raise healthy animals. I encourage consumers to be proactive and ask questions to better understand the why’s, I ask a ton of questions still today. And if you have any questions for me and our operation please leave a comment; I can also supply a pretty awesome list of more farmers to follow too!