I think I was destined to feed calves.
When my parents first started farming, they had a calf pen in the milking barn. As a toddler, my playpen sat right next to the calf pen.
As their herd grew in number, so did the need for stalls. The calf pen turned into stalls, the calves left the barn and creative calf housing commenced. Creative calf housing involved housing - and, oftentimes, tying - calves anywhere and everywhere that worked for the time being.
While it wasn't ideal, I don't remember our calves being ill, and it provided many lessons in problem solving for my sisters and I. Most of those lessons started asking a newborn calf, "Where am I going to put you?"
I must have started feeding baby calves at a very young age, because I can't recall being taught how to mix milk replacer. I have vivid memories, though, of standing, bent over, in the milk house, whisking one little pale blue cup of milk replacer powder into enough water to reach the Indian maiden's nose on the side of the ice cream pail.
Later, we switched to feeding whole milk to the calves. I think it was about the time we transitioned to seasonal calving and decided to try feeding the calves in groups with mob feeders. The system was supposed to reduce labor, which it did somewhat, but lugging that barrel of milk around from group to group was no easy chore. And neither was cleaning the hoses and nipples.
We liked the concept of allowing calves to suckle, so we ended up switching to using bottles and bottle holders for all the calves.
When Glen and I took over, I continued using bottles, holders (when there was something to hang one on) and creative calf housing. Six years later, I can still tell you which tree Demeter was tied to in the yard.
I thought I would leave creative calf housing behind when we moved to Stearns County, but I was wrong. Our baby calves were housed anywhere and everywhere on our new farm. We even bought some hutches, but there weren't nearly enough of them to keep up with our growing herd.
Our weaned calves were grouped in the pens in the front of our barn, which worked well as long as everything kept moving. When the pens outside filled up and there was nowhere to go with the heifers in the barn, we found ourselves with 400-pound heifers in 9-by-9 foot pens. When it finally came time to move them outside, the only way to get them there was with a halter and muscle power. Suffice it to say those days were no fun at all.
This system (if you can call it that) didn't work very well in the winter, either. It never made sense to me to take weaned calves from hutches outside and bring them into the warm barn. So, the late winter calves ended up being raised in the barn and the weaned calves stayed in their hutches until they resembled turtles.
Last winter, while talking to our vet, I told him to tell Glen that we needed to buy more hutches, because we had a serious shortage of calf housing and Glen didn't think we should buy more hutches.
We didn't buy any hutches. We did buy some super hutches for the weaned calves, which gave us a little more breathing room in time for our late winter calving rush.
The world of calf rearing as I knew it began to change this spring after I attended a calf care seminar with our vet clinic.
The information presented on pre-weaning calf nutrition made us take a closer look at the calf and heifer care on our farm. We were already feeding 50 percent more milk to our calves than we did when we started; but the seminar made it clear that we could do better.
We started looking at options. We tried an accelerated calf feeding program, but didn't like it. We talked about a pasteurizer, but realized that would add extra work to calf feeding - a task that already consumed more time than it should. We talked about not changing anything, but that didn't make sense considering the most recent research shows that pre-weaning nutrition has five times more impact on future production than genetics do.
After much discussion, we decided an automatic calf feeder would be our best option. Group housing would solve our calf space dilemmas. The feeder would allow the calves to consume more biologically appropriate amounts of milk throughout the day. And the reduction in calf chores would allow me to use my time for other tasks.
As Glen put it, "Maybe now Dan will be able to make it pre-school on time."
With the go-ahead from our lender, we ordered the calf feeder. Along with converting the pens in our barn to one large pen better suited for baby calves, we renovated our heifer yard to accommodate five groups of calves and heifers, instead of two.
To be honest, the past couple months were unbelievably exhausting. And we still have a lot of little jobs left to do. But for the first time in my life, I have a calf and heifer rearing system. Director of creative calf housing is no longer one of my titles. I don't have to ask each new calf, "Where am I going to put you?"
Calf and heifer chores are simple now. I didn't have to leave two pages of notes for our helper when we went down to the state fair.
More importantly, Dan arrived on time for his first day of pre-school. (For the record, getting both of us dressed up nice, fed and out the door on time is a major accomplishment for me.)
In some ways, I'm still adjusting to this whole new world of calf and heifer rearing. But I'm adjusting with a smile on my face.
Sadie and her husband, Glen, milk 70 cows near Melrose, Minn. They have two children - Dan, 4, and Monika, 2. When she's not parenting or farming, she's writing for the Dairy Star. Sadie can be reached at gsfrericks@meltel.net.