Let's Talk Calves!
Ah, springtime! The days are getting longer, blossoms are emerging, and the entire landscape looks fresh. The temperature increases and our need for winter clothing layers decreases (Well maybe, pack those away at your own risk…) Birds are singing, and baby animals are everywhere. Just the thought of newborn animals like puppies, lambs, and calves conjures up warm, fuzzy thoughts for most people. Come on now, who could resist a calf? Here at Buckeye Country Creamery, you can be sure that we love our calves! Every day, we see to it that each calf receives the best care that we can possibly give them.
Are you curious about what is required to raise happy and healthy calves? Great, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s dive right in and learn about calf care.
While they may be small, calves are significant members of the dairy herd. Without a calf being born, there is no production of milk. Calves are also vital to the future of the herd. To help that new heifer (female) calf born today, grow up and become a healthy, productive cow one day, careful husbandry is required from day one.
Before & Right After Birth
Here at BCC, we have calves born year round. In the weeks before a cow is due to calve (give birth), she is moved to a special pen with other expectant mothers in late pregnancy. This section of the barn, also known as the pre-fresh pen, has plenty of comfortable bedding for the cows to relax in. It is conveniently located near the milking parlor so that we can easily check on these cows to make sure everything is going smoothly with their pregnancy, and when the time comes, labor and delivery of the new calf.
When a calf is born, each one receives the same basic care, regardless of whether it is a bull (male) or a heifer. One of the first things we do following the birth of a calf is sanitize the navel, where the umbilical cord was attached. Now that they are born, the umbilical cord no longer has a function. Eventually what remains of the cord dries up and heals over, but immediately following birth, the navel is an open wound where germs can enter and make the calf very sick.
The navel is dipped in an iodine solution to kill bacteria and prevent infection. Newborn calves are fragile, and susceptible to sickness since they are born with an underdeveloped immune system. So with no protection against disease of their own making at birth, how does their immune system develop? Through the first “milk” produced in mom’s udder, or colostrum. Colostrum is the complete package deal, it contains important nutrients for the calf and lays the foundation of her immune system. Immunoglobulins found in the colostrum are absorbed from the gut into the newborn’s bloodstream in the first several hours of life.
It is vital to make sure that the calves get a feeding of colostrum as soon as possible after birth. If too much time passes, then the calf is no longer able to absorb those essential immunoglobulins properly. Our aim is that each calf gets fed one gallon of mom’s colostrum during its first few hours. In tandem with colostrum, we also give a few vaccines to the calf. These work to protect them even more against germs in the environment that could threaten their well being.
A feeding of colostrum, being prepared for a newborn calf
Housing & Feeding
Our dairy calves are housed in individual units, called calf hutches. Hutches protect calves from the weather, and they have plenty of room to lay down, stand up, and turn around. If you were to visit our calves, you’d see plenty of flouncing, happy babies! Each hutch is well bedded, so the calves are comfortable. The bedding type (straw, wood shavings, or sand) used will vary based on availability and season/temperature.
Some benefits to housing young calves in hutches include the prevention of contagious disease and the ease of giving each calf individual attention. Because calves have developing immune systems, a mild sickness can become serious quickly. It is critical to catch symptoms of disease early so treatment can be given promptly. We hate to see sick calves. When a calf does start showing signs of feeling under the weather, we proceed to do everything we know to do to help them feel better ASAP!
For the first few days, each calf is fed twice daily with milk from the cow in a bottle. As time passes, we switch to feeding a specialized milk replacer formula. We then transition from bottle feeding to training the calf to drink milk from a bucket. Most calves catch on pretty quick, and it’s amazing how fast they can drink that milk. Careful, they’ll knock that bucket right out of your hands if you don’t watch it! At each feeding, we always check each calf to make sure it is eating well and feeling good.
For older calves, we actually feed them warmed milk from the creamery that can no longer to be legally sold for human consumption. It’s a nifty way to reduce waste, and the calves are just fine with it. Having clean water to drink is also essential for calves. We always ensure that they have a bucket of lukewarm water available after each milk feeding.
In addition, we also feed them a starter grain pellet. We begin offering this to the babies at just a few days old. While they won’t consume much more than a few nibbles for a while, it is helpful to get them interested early. This encourages their digestive system to mature and puts them on the right track to weaning.
Other Management Procedures
During the first week of life, our calves are dehorned. A product is applied to the developing horn that stops growth. This is for their own safety, as well as their herd mates and for people who work with them. Doing this early in life is the best option, as it causes the least stress and discomfort to the calf.
The prevention of disease is always better than treatment. Some additional vaccines are given to our calves as they continue to mature. We collaborate with our veterinarian to determine what vaccines to give our calves, and when to give them.
Other regular calf management tasks include the sanitation of equipment and feeding equipment. Cleanliness of buckets, bottles, and nipples used for feeding is critical for keeping calves healthy.
Growing Up & Moving on
Pretty soon, weaning time rolls around. We gradually reduce the amount of milk being fed to inspire the calf to increase her intake of grain. We then stop feeding milk altogether, and the calf is considered weaned. When do we wean? Weaning time is determined by a combination of factors, including age, growth of the calf, and overall intake of solid food. While most are weaned by three months old, if there is a calf that seems abnormally small for her age, we would keep feeding her milk longer.
Also at this stage, calves are moved from their single hutches into a bigger hutch that accommodates multiple calves. Typically these transition pens have 4-5 calves, and they stay together for a few weeks. This gets them used to living with other calves and is far less stressful than it would be to house them in larger groups right away. Once they get their “sea legs” and the stress of weaning has passed, they will be transferred to larger groups as they move through our barns and continue to mature.
As you enjoy your Buckeye Country Creamery dairy products, you can rest assured that the calves here are well taken care of. Still have questions about cows, calves, or calf care? Contact us, and we’ll be happy to chat with you. Better yet, stop by the farm, meet our family, and check out our store during your visit. You can even get up close with a happy calf, as our petting zoo is back for the season!