On a dairy farm, there are new babies being born every day. Just like people, cows only produce milk (lactate) if they have recently had a baby. The cows get a break from milking for about two months before they calve (have their baby).
The cows that are ready to calve are kept separate from everyone else. The farmers and herd managers (Brian, at the New Generation Dairy) keep excellent records about when each cow was bred, so they have a really good idea (within a day or two!) of when every cow is going to calve.
The newborn calves get to have a little time with their mother, long enough for the cow to clean the calf and lick it dry. The calves never have any nose-to-udder contact with the cow. (This is another step in food safety for milk – it limits bacterial contamination of the udder.) Once the calf is clean and dry, the cow is moved, her colostrum is hand-milked and bottle fed to the calf within 2-4 hours of being born.
After spending a half-day in this straw pen in the main barn, the calves are moved outside to their own individual calf hutch.
The hutches are sort of like big dog houses. There is a fenced-in area in front of the hutch, so the calves can come in and out whenever they want. They are close enough that they can see and smell the other calves, but not touch them.
As they heard us coming towards Calf Village, they started to wake up, come out of their hutches, and stretch. Calves are pretty curious, and they wanted to see what was going on!
Cattle are herd animals, so it is important to keep them near other animals. But calves of this age are really susceptible to bacterial and viral diseases, especially when they are kept in large groups. Keeping them just a little bit separated like this helps to decrease the incidence of disease. It is easier to monitor each individual calf, so if one starts to show signs of illness, she can be temporarily moved to a different part of the farm so she doesn’t get the rest of the calves sick. (Sort of like keeping your child home from school when he has the chickenpox!)
It’s also easier to feed the calves when they are separate. Babies are hungry, and they’ll fight over food if you’re not careful. These calves are fed milk replacer in their very own bucket twice a day. (Keeping one bucket for each calf also helps reduce disease transmission.)
Hi, everybody! (Seriously, not much is cuter than calves!)
Once the calves are 6-7 weeks old, they are weaned off the milk replacer and onto a high-protein pelleted diet. (This is the dairy version of creep feed.)
After weaning, when the calves are around 2 months old, they are moved into group hutches. These hutches are super-sized houses for the babies. By this time, they’re old enough that their immune systems are stronger and they are not at quite as much risk of getting sick, so it’s safe to put them together in small groups.
They are put in groups of 4-6 in these spaces. This gives them a chance to socialize a little more closely with other animals.
After about two weeks in the group hutches, the calves are sent to a farm in Kentucky where they live in bigger groups and grow up a little more. When they are old enough (around 14 months) they are bred. When the heifers are around 22 months old they are brought back to the New Generation Dairy. They have about 2 months on the farm to get accustomed to their new (permanent) home before they have their first calves and join the milking herd.
What other questions do you have about dairy cattle? Read these other articles about dairy cows, and leave me a question in the comments if you want to know more!