After three decades of taking care of calves, and having them right outside my window, I can tell the source of the bellering. I can tell the difference at night between a calf just talking with a cow strolling by on the pasture, if it is frightened or in trouble, or if it is one of those calves that is persistently hungry and wants everyone to know.
Our calf care story started with my mother-in-law, Lois. She was the original calf expert at our dairy farm starting in the 1950s and held that role for many decades. She is now retired but has passed down all of her expertise and skills to me. I will always be extremely grateful for her pa-tience in showing and teaching what is needed in calf care. There’s no way to surpass Lois’ amazing efficiency and multi-tasking abilities in her work with calves.
The key to calf care is not a secret. Consistency, cleanliness, quality of feeding and nutrition, observation, quick action if there is a problem and love of baby animals are all of top im-portance. I have learned to focus on these.
Colostrum fed quickly, in correct amounts, high in quality and clean is the single most important thing a calf care person needs to tend to.
These basic colostrum rules have remained the same for at least 40 years. Yet there is much research and new technology to measure calf absorption of immunoglobins, systems to manage co-lostrum with ease, different feeding techniques and most recently an article about a research study that supports the use of colostrum as an early treatment of scours in young calves. The article states that scours is a challenge that causes 56% of illness and 32% of deaths in calves. Though I don’t keep the stats in our calves, it is a main challenge I face. Recovering from scours has long-term negative effects as the calf matures and joins the milking herd as well. The colostrum as a treatment concept merits consideration in my calf care.
As you can see , some of the techniques, tools and products used in calf care fluctuate through the years.
I grew up offering hay to the calves on our farm. Then, several research studies determined hay in a young ruminant diet is not utilized and may deter starter feed consumption. Calf starter was shown to enhance rumen function, so getting calves to consume that sooner was better. Now if you ask dairy nutritionists or calf experts about hay, they often hedge, pointing out what works for some farms doesn’t work as well for others. I like to start offering just a little grass hay only when I start to wean our calves off of milk, usually at 2 months of age.
At my home farm in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we stirred up milk replacer for calves. Here at An-nexstad Dairy, we feed whole milk and now batch-pasteurize treated and fresh milk if available for feeding calves. On most days, I haul several pails of whole milk from our bulk tank to the pasteuriz-er. It isn’t bad if there are 20 or fewer calves, but there are often upward of 30 calves. That is a lot to haul. I often wish for a more efficient way to fill the pasteurizer.
I notice when I plan to be gone for more than a calf feeding at a time, my calf barn routine is somewhat complicated. It’s simply the nature of taking care of calves. Each one needs attention and to be observed each feeding. If they are off, then there is a reason that needs to be investigated. The calf might need treatment for scours, navel infection or a respiratory problem. I take tem-peratures and decide whether to treat with a nutraceutical, electrolyte, antibiotic or give other special attention.
When helpers do my chores, I write a complete set of feeding, care and clean up instructions for the calf feeding crew to refer to. They often text with questions. Advising when I am not there is tricky, but I do my best. When I receive word that the calves are full and happy, I know all is well.
During the past summer, I hired three part-time calf helpers in the calf barn. Typically, our kids have helped, but they spent this summer working off the farm. The helpers were quick learn-ers and tremendous help with all calf-related tasks. Now, they are back in school, but they help when they can. I appreciate the workload break.
Thank goodness for help in raising the future of our herd. Now, it’s time for chores.
Jean dairy farms with her husband, Rolf, and brother-in-law, Mike, and children Emily, Matthias and Leif. They farm near St. Peter, Minnesota, in Norseland, where she is still trying to fit in with the Norwegians and Swedes. They milk 200 cows and farm 650 acres. She can be reached at jeanannexstad@gmail.com.