This past summer, we had three calves born on the farm, all three with different experiences. Ivory gave birth first on June 6. It was the first really hot day we had for the summer. It always seems to be that way. She was in a shady spot when I saw her get up and expel some discharge. I went to check on her and decided I could hose her off, set her up in the calving stall with a fan, and come back in an hour or so. I came back and baby Irv was already there! He was a huge calf weighing almost 100 lbs.! The average calf is around 80 lbs., so safe to say that Irv was a big guy.
Brie calved about 10 days later and a week before her due date! Cows generally calf right on their due date so baby Blair was a surprise! At this point, it was only Penny and Brie that were due, so they got to enjoy a nighttime pasture just to themselves. In the morning, I went to move them back over to a nice shady pasture and I saw a little head pop up in the tall grass. I haltered Brie and walked her across to the shady pasture and Blair just followed! I got them set up in a nice stall and tended to them both. Our last summer calf, Sven, was of course born during Hurricane Elsa. I kept Penny in the stall overnight knowing that the weather was going to be bad. In the morning, we saw that a healthy bull calf had arrived.
Every farm has its own method of calf management, but on all dairy farms, the care and comfort of the calf and mom is always a top priority. The most important time for the calf after birth is within the first two hours to get colostrum and to ensure they are able to stand on their own. On our farm, I’m usually able to leave the calves with the new mom at least for the first 48 hours to receive important immune system-building colostrum.
For their safety and wellbeing, the dairy calves are then moved to their own specially-designed area on the farm. This practice can be confusing when unfamiliar with farming. This separation protects the calf from harmful bacteria and physical injury. Newborn calves don’t have much of an immune system built up yet. Think about how new human moms would not want someone to be around their infant when coughing or feverish. Or when it’s requested that everyone must wash their hands before holding the new baby. Cows aren’t an animal that will go to one area of the barn or pasture to poop. Manure can happen, anytime and anywhere. That manure can carry bugs and bacteria. Additionally, when cows give birth, their hormones may cause them to become restless, increasing the chances that they may inadvertently injure the calf. A calf could be seriously injured when surrounded by adult cows that weigh more than 1,500 pounds. Farmers have the means to provide optimal care, in the appropriate setting, to allow young cows to thrive as they grow.
Learn more about why separation occurs in this blog post. Then you can check out this blog post which explains some of the different housing options farmers use for their calves such as a calf hutch which is equivalent to a crib or playpen to protect the calf as it develops.
After the mom has passed her afterbirth, she is then able to rejoin the milking herd. When monitoring mom, we want to make sure she is eating her share of grain, monitor how much milk she is making, ensure she is being fully milked out, and make sure there is no threat of milk fever.
In their specially designed area, the calves get bottle-fed daily and enjoy having similarly-aged friends next to them. One reason we like to bottle feed the calf is to ensure that it is eating enough, by doing so we can better manage what the calf needs. Once they are big enough, they can enjoy our farm’s grass pastures. From there they can either be introduced into the milking herd or we have a neighboring farm with a petting zoo that will adopt any of our cows with open arms.
Then the cycle starts again! We do not breed the new mom for at least two heat cycles to make sure she has time to heal. A cow’s lactation cycle peaks around 4 months and that is when she is making the most milk and may require some extra nutrition to help keep weight on. We can correct this by adding more food or different types of feed to keep her healthy and happy as her body puts most of its energy into making milk.
Although this process can be hectic, it’s truly one of the wonders of the world to experience. To watch an animal that didn’t go to countless consultations, subscribe to books, listen to pregnancy podcasts, go to delivery classes, or even do a round of maternity yoga; somehow knows exactly what to do and when to do it, reminds me that nature is truly amazing! It keeps us all here on the farm humble and open to the things we have yet to learn from our ladies.
Shaggy Coos Farm