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!
Will Flannigan says
Great post, as always!
How many years can a particular cow produce milk? I’m guessing it’s related to how many times she can birth a calf.
Will, you’re right on track. The goal is for a cow to have a calf every year. She gets a break from lactating for around the two months before she gives birth again. Usually somewhere between 7 and 9 years old a cow’s milk production will start to decrease. Every cow, and every farm, is a little different, but when a cow isn’t able to produce as much milk as most of the other cows in a herd she is sold. The age this happens depends a lot on genetics, but also on diet and environment. The better care a farmer takes of his cows, the longer they’ll stay healthy and able to produce good quality milk.
Will Flannigan says
I just went to my first livestock auction over the weekend, boy was it hot!
Thanks again for the info.
Hopefully we’re starting to see a break in the heat… it hasn’t quite hit 90 here yet today. Everyone, including the animals, has been having a hard time!
That is so sad and it hurts my heart that the babies are taken away right away from their mum 🙁
They are all alone. The mum misses them I am sure and they must cry for their mum. They are all alone. That doesn’t seem right. Plus they are ready to have babies in 2 months again? Omg, that’s so sad!
Ingrid, thanks for your comment. You might be interested in this article on my other site: http://www.alarmclockwars.com/is-it-mean-to-take-a-calf-away-from-its-mom/. Dairy calves are not all alone after they leave their moms, they are kept in their own space but right next to a bunch of other calves. Many dairy cows are actually not very good mothers, and don’t show many outward signs of missing their babies. Beef cows are a little different story, and it can be pretty noisy on a beef farm for the few days after weaning!
Dairy and beef cows are ready to get pregnant about 2 months after they have their baby, but they don’t actually have another baby for full year. What I tried to explain at the end of this article is that this farm takes their calves to a different farm to be raised for their first two years. When the calves are 14 months old (fully mature) they are bred; when the calves are 22 months old they come back to this farm; and when they are 24 months old they have their baby. Sorry if that was confusing!
Please let me know if you have any other questions. I am happy to answer them, or direct you to some other farmers to get your questions answered!
Doesn’t the mother become traumatised due to being separated from her calves so many times?
Cara D says
Say whatever you want, this is not enough space for these animals. I am so happy that I don’t consume dairy for some years already. When I look at these calfs I only want to cuddle them
Hi, Alec. The cows really don’t seem to be bothered much by the calves being separated. I’ve written a post on my other website that goes into this a little more. Check it out here, and let me know if you have any more questions. http://www.alarmclockwars.com/is-it-mean-to-take-a-calf-away-from-its-mom/
Hi Carla. Dairy calves are typically only kept in their individual hutches for a 6-8 weeks, then in a group hutch for a few more weeks. After that, most farmers move them to a larger pasture where they do have much more space. Calves are fun to cuddle when they are small, but they get big and strong fast, and then they really don’t want to cuddle!
Steve Young says
Thank you very much for the reply and the excellent information you supplied. It really put my mind at ease. Like so many stories on the internet, the one I read left out most of the story and put in false information. I should have researched the story more.
I noticed in your article that there is no mention of the dairy calves being used for veal. I’ve heard the male calves are used for veal since the female calves are sent back to be used as dairy cows. What is the veal process for these calves in particular? Or just in general?
where is the farm in Kentucky
What happens to the baby male calves? Are they grown up to full maturity and sold as meat just as with the beef cattle or are they separated at birth and used for veal or what?
Great question, Sarah. The male dairy calves are separated, just like the female dairy calves. Male dairy calves can be raised as veal or can be raised for beef. It depends on the farmer, the location, and the market.
Blanche, I don’t know exactly where the farm is in Kentucky. Anywhere in Kentucky is within a few hours drive of this farm, so it’s not too far away.
Alyssa, thanks for your question. Some male dairy calves are raised for veal, but most are raised for beef. I don’t know how the male calves from this farm are raised. Here is some information about veal farms in the United States you might find interesting (http://www.vealfarm.com/) and some myths about veal farms (https://nursingthefarmlife.ca/2016/02/08/7-myths-about-veal-that-we-can-throw-on-the-manure-pile/).
Is there an ordinance that you know of about how far off the road calf huts should be placed?
Hi Lola, I don’t know about that. My best guess is that it likely varies by state, and maybe even county, and is part of zoning regulations. A good place to start to find out would be checking with your state Farm Bureau, Inc office.
Why don’t you feed the calves milk instead of milk replacer? I would think that it would be much better for them just as breast milk is best for human babies.
Marybeth Feutz says
Dairy calves are typically fed milk replacer because the milk from the cows is sold. Calves do get colostrum (first milk) from cows (not a “replacement” product). That is what is really important for their health and immune system. Milk replacer for dairy calves is carefully formulated and nutritionally balanced to be as good for them as milk.
As far as the thought that breast milk is best for human babies, I am a mom who could not breastfeed, even though I tried exceptionally hard. As a mother and a veterinarian, I am of the opinion that “fed is best” for any baby – wherever the milk source is from.
Thanks for your reply!
So I’m guessing that the milk replacement formula is less expensive than what you sell the milk for? I know that human baby formula is expensive so I thought since you have the perfect feed available that it makes sense to use it 🙂
As a neonatal RN I am fully supportive of whatever a mother chooses (or is able) to feed her baby, and I fully understand your struggle. Breastfeeding is never easy, nor always possible, and I didn’t mean any offence. Kudos to you for your effort and I agree that fed is best!
When it is available, science has proven that breast milk is the very best for a (human) baby for gut closure, immunity, gut flora, etc. From their own mother being the ideal, but from a donor mother is second best. We see a lot of gut issues with formula feeding neonates. I don’t know how this works with cows though – so that’s why I asked 🙂
Marybeth Feutz says
You are correct, the milk replacer is less expensive that what the farmer can sell milk for.
Colostrum is essential for calves. Cows don’t give their calves any antibodies through the placenta, it all comes through the colostrum. They need to drink colostrum within the first 24 hours, or the gut closes so the immunoglobulin proteins (antibodies) can’t be absorbed. Without that “first milk,” calves (and other farm animals) will die. When possible, the colostrum is from their mom. Sometimes it is from a donor cow. In extreme circumstances, a farmer might use colostrum replacer. That is better than nothing, but not as good as cow’s colostrum.
Question: What is the difference between Homogeneous and non-homo milk…
Marybeth Feutz says
Homogenized milk is milk that has been mixed up so well that the cream does not separate to the top of the milk. In non-homogenized milk, you’ll need to shake it before you use it, or you’ll just get cream off the top instead of all the parts of the milk. You can find more detailed information about homogenization in this post.
And what becomes of the baby boy calves?
Marybeth Feutz says
Hi, Kristine. You can see some more comments below about what happens to the male calves.