A new adventure for our farm this spring has been the way we raise our calves. In years past we have tried several different ways to raise the calves to be healthy. When we first switched over to grass farming the big craze was to group feed the calves on a barrel. With this method we had about 10 calves in one group and had 10 nipples on around the barrel with tube going to the bottom. We would pour the milk in the barrel and the calves would gather round and get their fill. This worked well for about one year! After we were done with it for the year it was a mess to clean out properly with all the tubes, etc. One year we did leave some of the calves with their moms, but that was interesting as well. The dairy cows are rotated around the farm to utilize the grass and are brought up to the barn twice a day for milking. The majority of the fences we have around the farm are just two wire fences. We had a couple of problems with this method. One, the calves were small enough to crawl in and out of the fences without touching the wires. So, often someone driving by would stop and tell us some of our calves were on the road. Two, with the cows moving around so much the calves would sometimes be in one pasture and the cows had moved on to the next. So, we decided that wasn't the best way to manage our calves. By this time we did realize that the calves remained healthier when they were able to grow up outside as opposed to when we had tried to start them in a barn. So, we then went to individual bottle feeding. Each calf had its own hutch (three sided shelter) and gate area where it could come outside. Twice a day someone would feed them with a bottle. When they were old enough to figure out how to eat without someone standing right there they were moved into a group of about 5-8 calves and would be feed "calfeteria" style! We used a system similar to the barrel, but it one side was flat and hung on a gate and the other side had the nipples. There were no tubes involved in this system. The following is a photo of the feeder.
This system seemed to work pretty well, but it was labor intensive to bottle feed the calves and then we still had to dump buckets of milk in these feeders twice a day and make sure all the calves were eating. The next step was to see if we could find a way to raise our claves without producing more work. One of our grazing friends, who also makes farmstead cheese, in Clay City, IN, has been utilizing a nurse cow herd. One day this late winter Kyle went and visited their farm and talked to them about how they did their nurse cows.
We started calving in early March this year when the cows were not yet out on pasture. At first the calves were left with their moms because they were still in the barnyard and we didn't have a place to go with a nurse cow herd just yet. When the pastures were ready, a pasture with a six wire fence was designated as the cow/calf pasture. Kyle chose the cows that he wanted to be the nurse cows and put two to three calves with her and let them bond. If the cow did not accept a calf for some reason he would put the calf with a different cow. So, one cow at a time our nurse cow herd was established. When he felt that the cow and calves were bonded he then moved them to the pasture. Eventually all the calves that we had were bonded to a cow and they were all together. We still had a handful of cows left to calve, so when they did calve he let the calf on the mom for a couple of days so that the calf could utilize the good colostrum from its mom. Then he would bond the calf with its nurse cow. We are now done calving for the spring and have our nurse cow herd completely established. It was a learning experience as all new things are. We have had people comment when they drive by what a unique sight it is too see the cows and calves together. The calves are looking so healthy and are really growing. Whereas last year at this time they were in the groups being fed primarily milk and some dry hay; this year they are able to get the milk still and are really grazing the fresh, green grass. At this point there is not everyday labor involved as there has been in the past. We are pleased with the experience and hope it will go even better next year.
The following is of a foggy morning and a couple of the calves are finding their breakfast.
And a shot of the group.