A homestead dairy cow starts as a calf.
Twice, actually. She’s a calf when she’s born, and she doesn’t really become a dairy cow until she has a calf.
Just recently we’ve been talking a lot on our social media about calves because we have one, and we tend to talk about what’s current for us. Having a calf is magical, but it isn’t often a Walt Disney moment on the farm. We work with nature, but sometimes nature asks us to lend a hand.
The case of our calf Belle is one such time. Here’s how she started:
We couldn’t leave poor Belle with her mom or she’d have turned into a calf-cicle. As it was her ears did get frostbit a bit. By the time we got her warmed up and sturdy it was 48 hours later and neither she nor her mom, CeCe, cared about each other. It sounds cold, but it’s the truth in animal world. Belle was bonded to us and CeCe was happy to chew her cud and get her grain at milking time. Some in social media world considered this cruel, but had we not intervened and cared for Belle she would be dead instead of entertaining. Farming has harsh realities sometimes and that’s one of them.
This video brings up another factor in our decision:
How to raise a dairy calf:
One is to do what we did: pull the calf immediately or within a few days of birth. We usually let the calf stay with the mom for a couple of days and get her colostrum. In this case it wasn’t possible, so we milked the mom within a few hours of calving. This did a lot to boost her milk production and will set her production level higher throughout her entire lactation. A dairy cow is meant to give more milk than a calf needs to drink. That’s by design. So she is able to fulfill her mission in life at a higher plane this way. The other benefit is that there is minimal separation stress between mom and baby. The baby bonds with her caretakers. Mom goes on as she always has, with the added benefit of treats at milking time. The calf gets fed two or three times a day (honestly, we’re very generous because we can be), preferably her own mom’s milk, until weaning time. We handle her a lot in this time and work to train her to be as manageable as can be.
The other way is to “share” where the calf gets the cow 12 hours, and the farmer gets the other 12. In this way the farmer doesn’t have to feed the calf but will milk the cow once a day and use that “share.” To do this, you need a good way to move and handle the calf to keep it from it’s mom for that part of the rotation. This does gentle and train the calf and works well for those with the facility to do it. It can work out great, but if you can’t separate the calf it can be a nightmare. We don’t have the facilities to do that.
The one time we “shared” and left the calf on full time and just took the left overs, we found we had to separate him at 4 weeks old. He was at least 150-175 pounds and living on 5 gallons of milk a day. He wasn’t used to eating hay, taking his nourishment any other way, or being separated from mom. His digestive system wasn’t ready to be off milk, or to digest much else. Yet, he was not used to us and refused to take a bottle or drink from a bucket. He made it and was a beautiful steer in the end, but he had a rough go his first year because of the abrupt and early weaning.
Want to learn more about calves and keeping a homestead dairy cow?
- Check out this playlist on the Baker’s Green Acres youtube channel: Homestead Dairy Cow Series
- Check out this playlist on the The Anyone Can Farm Experience youtube channel: Grassfed Beef and Milking Dairy Cows
- Join the Tribe+ and come to the biweekly consulting Q&A calls with Mark. You get to ask your questions and learn from Mark and the other members. It’s a golden opportunity you won’t find anywhere else. Plus you can get some great discounts with companies to help your venture, from books from Chelsea Green Publisher to equiment and supplies from LEM and Roots and Harvest to heirloom seeds from Ark Seed Kits. Grow in your confidence and competence with a community.