10 Steps for Calf Care on a Small-Herd Micro Dairy

Reader Contribution by Steve Judge and Bob-White Systems
1 / 3
2 / 3
3 / 3

The number one rule at the Bob-White Systems Micro Dairy Farm is that our cows must be easy and safe to handle. I don’t want to have to catch or chase after our cows when they are out on pasture. I want them to come to me when they see me.  Usually they will just follow me to wherever I want them to go or I can also lead them by their collars.  Sometimes, if they are feeling rambunctious, we may have to put a halter on them but that is rare.

Our Micro Dairy is a dairy farm, not a wildlife refuge. I don’t have the time or desire to chase cows across the countryside if I need to get them into the barnyard or barn.  And I don’t need cows that are difficult to milk. As a result I raise my calves so they will grow to become tame, calm and well-mannered cows. Here is how I do it:

1. I try to have my cows calve on pasture (during the warmer season here in Vermont) or in my calving pen if it is cold or wet outside.

2. Generally, I will separate the cow and the calf once the calf has been cleaned by its mom and is dry.  

3. I milk the calf’s mom as soon as I can and bottle feed the calf 1/2 gallon of warm colostrum. I usually have no problem getting the newborn to drink, though sometimes it takes patience and the knowledge gained from feeding thousands of new born calves. From that point on, I will not let the calf nurse on its mom for several reasons. First, I want the calf to bond with me so that its first loyalty is to me and not the herd. Second, calves can be very rough when they nurse.  They can bruise and cut the cows’ teats. I just make it a clean break.

4. Then, I will tie the new born calf to the inside wall of the barn opposite the manger and make a nice thick bed of shavings and rowan for it to lay down in. I make sure it has enough line to easily get up and down but not so much that it can hang itself.  Why tie the calf to the wall?  First I want the calf to get used to being restrained.  The calf will struggle a bit at first but it soon grows used to being tied.  Second I want the calf to be in a high traffic area where it can see it’s mom when the cows are in and where it will become familiar with all the sights, sounds and smells of the barn.  

5. I pat and scratch the calf every time I go by it so it will get used to my touch. I also refresh the calf’s bedding often so it is clean and dry.

6. After an average of two weeks I will move the calf outside to our 10 foot by 10 foot calf pen that is right next to the barn and the driveway. The calf pen is actually part of the cow’s run in shed so the calf and its mom can see one another and touch noses. Feeding the calf there is easy and convenient and the calf becomes accustomed to the traffic on the driveway that includes cars, trucks, tractors, dogs, people walking etc. 

7. While the calf is in this pen I will train it to drink from a bucket and increase the amount of milk I feed it to a gallon or more per feeding. I will have the calf humanely dehorned at the earliest age possible. The calf will stay in this pen a month or two depending on how fast she matures.

8. During the warmer months, the next step will be to introduce the calf (not old enough to be referred to as a heifer) to our heifer paddock, which is approximately 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. The paddock includes a nice old apple tree and a small run in shed, more than enough lush grass for a small heifer and a water tub. Plus, it’s located close to our house, orchard and garden where I can keep a close watch on it.

9. The heifer paddock is enclosed by a four strand high tensile electric fence. In order for the fence to be effective, I have to train the calf to respect it. I do this by first making sure the fence controller is working at full strength. I then tie a long but light line to the heifer’s halter and give her enough length so that she can touch the fence and learn about it herself — and not connect me with the shock. It is important that the calf is old enough to understand the connection between the shock and the fence. If learned properly, this lesson will stay with the heifer for life.

When the calf is a few weeks older, the next step will be to train her to respect a single strand of polywire. That will allow me to safely turn her out with the herd in the larger cow pasture that is enclosed by only one or two strands of polywire. I do this by dividing the heifer paddock up into two sections by a single strand of polywire and letting her learn about it on her own under my careful watch.

10. After she is about six months old, weaned and clearly respects the fence she is now a heifer that I can put her out with the cows. It is always nerve wracking for me when a heifer goes out into the big pasture on her own for the first time. We live in a thickly settled village and the last thing I need is an excited heifer running amuck through the neighborhood. So far, we have been lucky.

This may seem like a complicated process for raising calves, but it flows logically and in the end, the calves become heifers who can rejoin their mothers in the herd.  Then they have calves of their own and become cows and the cycle goes on and on.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.