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Women in Ag: How We Care for Calves

Every time I walk out the door – no matter what my destination – the farmyard suddenly wakes up. It is filled with tiny little “moos.” It’s the baby calves of our farm. While they are little, they are loud and insistent. We are milking 110 cows, and we are growing a bit with a goal of 120 milking cows going through the parlor, which means we have ramped up our calf numbers. We also keep all of our bull calves and raise them as steers all the way through to finished animals. As of this writing, we have 33 baby or wet calves.

I thought it might be fun to share what we do with all of our babies as we grow and manage them to become healthy, successful additions to our milking herd or a tasty meal on a plate. Before I jump too far in, I’ll give a couple of definitions for the different age groups. Wet calves are kept in the calf barn/hutches and are fed milk replacer. They range in age from birth to about 2 months of age, and they are kept in individual pens. Transition or weaned calves ages 2 to 3 months are kept in small groups. Young stock are grouped by age and eventually sex through to springing (due to calve) heifers or finished steers.

Our wet calves are pretty heavily managed because we want to keep them healthy and thriving. We try our hardest to check on them as soon as they are born, which means we monitor the cows due to calve a lot. During the day, we check the pen every two to three hours; at night, we do a check before we go to bed. It is also the first pen we look at when we head out at 4:00 a.m. If a cow is calving, we check her progress every 20 to 30 minutes and assist as necessary.

When the calf is born, we look it over, checking the sex as well as making sure momma has an interest in the calf so she can dry it off and stimulate the calf to perk up. Calves are usually on their feet in the first 30 to 40 minutes. If the newborn is a heifer (female), I will feed a colostrum replacement product immediately. If the newborn is a bull (male), I may wait until the next milking to feed the mother’s colostrum. If the next milking is more than four hours away, I will feed the replacement product. My goal is to get colostrum in some form into the calf within four hours of birth – the sooner the better.

Our calves are removed from the calving pen about an hour after birth. There are several reasons for this, and they are all to the benefit of the calf and cow. First, our calving pen is a group pen, so there are several other animals in there. That means an increased likelihood of getting stepped on as well as increased chance of the first few steps resulting in a face full of manure. No matter how clean, dry, and well bedded we keep that pen, it always seems like a calf will land in a pile of poop. So it is for safety and health that we remove the calf. For the benefit of mom, we move her to the milking pen so she can get milked (a fresh cow has a very full and uncomfortable udder of milk). Also, upon calving, her milk production ramps up as do her energy needs. The dry cow diet is made to maintain condition while in the last weeks of pregnancy. It doesn’t adequately support the increased nutritional requirements of lactation.

Once in an individual calf stall, our babies get two ear tags and are dehorned using a special paste. This is done right away so we can accurately identify the calves. Our heifers get yellow ear tags, and the bull calves get white ones. I like to think I am really good at remembering who is who, but in weeks like this past one when nine are born in just a couple days, it’s hard to keep up. We dehorn right away with the paste so it is less irritating and stressful on the calf. The nerve endings of the horn bud are not fully attached, and the calf isn’t fully aware of what’s going on. It is as simple as a quick hair cut over the horn bud, a dab the size of a dime on that bud, and a piece of duct tape over the top to ensure it isn’t smeared. The tape falls off or is taken off in about 12 hours, and the calf doesn’t show any sign of stress.

Our little babies are fed a milk replacer from day 2 until they are weaned at about 6 weeks old. Our milk replacer is a well-balanced product purchased from our local feed mill. It provides protein and fat as well as all the vitamins and minerals the calves will need for their early days of life. The calves always have free-choice water, and I begin offering a texturized (looks like granola) calf grain right away. The calf grain also provides additional protein, some fat, and more vitamins and minerals. It is a quite an aromatic feed, and they are usually nibbling at it by the time they are 3 to 4 days old.

While in the calf stalls, I monitor the babies closely for any signs of illness, stress, or any other possible concerns like injury (very rare) or birth defects. If a calf does fall ill, I have worked with our veterinarian to develop treatment protocols for numerous possibilities. We have a plan for respiratory disease that includes specific antibiotics that will cure the most common cause on our farm. If the calf is scouring, there are two plans in place depending on the cause of the scour and how the calf is behaving. If the calf continues to eat well and is spunky, then we go with more of a supportive therapy of probiotics and electrolytes. If the calf is off feed or really down in the dumps, then we use medications, again for our normal causes on this farm. We have diagnosed our normal causes by using fecal samples as well as necropsy results in the past to establish our protocols. We do update those results on a regular basis and adjust as needed. If a calf does not respond to the standard protocols, then we will get together and take samples and adjust for that particular case. I have found that by working closely with my veterinarian, we rarely have sick calves. When we do, they respond quickly to treatment.

The weaning process is a bit drawn out for the calves’ benefit. They will go down to getting warm water in the morning and then milk at night for three to five days depending on grain intake. Then they get just warm water for two to three days. At that point, we have been using the buddy system and putting two calves together. We’ve found that they handle the move to the group situation much better with a friend. They are with their buddies for three to five more days, then they are moved to the heifer barn in groups of four, six, or eight, depending on how many are weaned at a time.

Once the calves are in the heifer barn, we move them through a series of pens based on their ages and size. At about 4 months old, we castrate the bulls (now steers), remove any horns that snuck through the dehorning paste, and vaccinate the whole group. Heifers and steers stay together until they are about 9 to 10 months old. At that point, we separate them by moving the heifers to the breeding pen, and the steers go into a grower group.

We breed our heifers at 12 months old as long as they meet our size goal. We like to have them calved in at 21 to 22 months. We’ve found that they do the best on our farm at that age. Some other farms have them calving a bit younger or a bit older. It all depends on your management practices and facilities. All of our heifers are bred artificially with sexed semen. That means we get a higher percentage of heifer calves from our heifers. This serves not only to bolster our replacement herd but also to make for some really easy calving for our girls.

The steers that move into the grower pen stay there until they are about 1,100 pounds. Then we move them to the finishing pen. We aim to get them out at about 1,450 pounds and hopefully less than 20 months of age. These two pens are fed a heavy corn silage and high-moisture corn diet as well as getting the refusals of the other groups.

All in all, we’ve been very happy with our young stock program. We meet or exceed most of our goals on a regular basis, and we are continually working to improve upon what we do.

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