What Happens to A Dairy Calf After It Is Born?

Posted on Monday, November 30, 2015 by Andrew

The excitement of a new calf never gets old for me. Whether a cow has the calf on her own (about 75% of the time) or needs some help (because the calf is big, the cow isn’t interested in pushing or something more serious like a breach) watching that calf get up on it’s own legs within minutes of being born is simply cool to see. Every time. So what happens next? On our farm, we make sure that the cow and calf have some time to themselves. That means putting them in a separate pen or keeping other cows away from them, to make sure the cow has enough time to lick the calf off and the calf has time to try & get up. No matter where this is, it is important that the area be clean – because we don’t want the calf to wind up in a cow patty or another spot that could expose them to bacteria.

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A newborn calf in a pen filled with fresh, clean straw.

After this, the cow is moved into the barn to be milked. We milk her into a bucket for several days and feed that colostrum to the calf – so that we can be sure the calf gets all the milk they need to get a strong start to life. We also make sure the cow has lots of fresh feed and water in front of her, and between that and the fact the rest of the herd is around her – there is very little – if any stress on the cow.

For the calf (heifer or bull), they are moved into a hutch.

A calf stand outside of her hutch, on a winter day, as we make the rounds with warm milk

A calf stand outside of her hutch, on a winter day, as we make the rounds with warm milk

These are set up outside and are like individual houses that provide shelter from the wind and sun, but also allow the calf to come out and see the other calves in hutches around. We like the hutches for calves for two reasons. One is the fresh air. Calves need a lot of fresh air for their developing lungs. Without it, they can easily suffer from pneumonia, obviously something we don’t like to see. The second reason, is the huts allow for individual care for a delicate calf as well as allowing for the start of socialization with other calves as they get stronger. You see, calves have very weak immune systems for their first few weeks – so these hutches can help prevent the spread of disease. By eight weeks of age, the calves have doubled their size and are eating a mix of milk, ‘calf starter’ solid feed and a little hay. They are gradually weaned off the milk and moved into group pens now that their immune systems are strong. Bulls with bulls, heifers with heifers. They can be reproductively active as early as 6 months – so we need to make sure they can’t ‘get to know each other’ as a pregnancy that early for a small heifer would be dangerous.

Bulls are grouped together and have a large pen we keep bedded and they have access to their feed and water at all times. They are primarily raised on grain, with a side of mineral and hay. They are raised up to 700 pounds, and then sold as ‘grain-fed’ veal. Don’t believe the hype of cramped calf cages or baby calves.

Three of our grain-fed veal calves.

Three of our grain-fed vealers.

Heifers are raised to 15 months of age on a variety of forages like hay or corn silage with a side of mineral to make sure they have all their nutritional needs met. They’ve likely come into heat several times before this, as a cow regularly ovulates every 21 days, but we are sure to keep the bulls away until we know they are the right size to safely carry a calf. That is when they are bred by artificial insemination, and 9 months later, it starts all over!

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About Andrew

Social media is becoming a useful tool for many people, and as a farmer, Andrew is no different. Today, Andrew works alongside his parents on their dairy farm, and he started using social media to share the farm’s story with non-farming Ontarians. In addition, he is helping teach farmers and others working in agricultural about the value of social media on the farm.

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