Are Dam-Raised Dairy Calves Really Better?

Most people who have dairy cows are in love, or at least somewhat obsessed with them. Even the big commercial dairy farmer appreciates their cows and spends time obsessing about udder conformation, foot issues and how they are working to selectively breed for a sturdier, more resilient cow who can still produce vast quantities of milk. Unfortunately, even the most rigid, statistically perfect breeding program isn’t enough for any dairy cow owner, whether they own one cow or thousands. The real problem with the cows of today is more than just genetics.

dam_raised_calvesA two day old heifer calf gets some attention from her mother out on the pasture.

Good Foundations Require More Than Breeding

Traditional, large-scale dairy farmers, and even a lot of small family farms may be making a mistake that negates any gain they are getting from their selective breeding programs. When these selectively bred cows calve, the bull calves are sold almost immediately, while most of the heifer calves are separated from the cow and raised on commercial milk replacers. While this is not inhumane, it does play a role in the future health and resiliency of the calf, both as it grows and once it becomes an adult.

Just as science is now showing that a breast-fed human baby is healthier and more resistant to disease, there is also a growing audience of farmers and family cow owners who believe the calf who is raised on a cow is healthier, as well. Increases in bone mass, skeletal size and overall growth rates are easy to observe in calves fed this way, and many believethat the heifer calves who are milk fed for a minimum of four to six months may also reap huge benefits when they reach breeding and calving age.

nursing_jersey_calfOne of our little Jersey heifer calves nurses out in the field.

Joel Salatin, one of the recognized leaders in the return to real food movement, understands the importance of nutrition to the growing calf and how it can benefit both farmer and overall herd health. In his book, Salad Bar Beef, he demonstrates how returning his cows to their natural patterns of grazing on nutritious grass and raising their calves has increased his herd vitality, growth rates and his bottom line. As a bonus, it has allowed him to build healthier, more robust pasture, and eliminate supplement use. This same principle can be just as successful with the family dairy cow or small dairy herd.

Healthy Calves Become Healthy Cows

When a calf is bottle-fed commercial milk replacer, it consumes a half-gallon in as little as a couple of minutes. This sudden influx of food on an empty stomach can cause the calf to develop digestive issues and diarrhea, or scours, which can quickly become life threatening. In addition, milk replacer must be properly mixed and at the correct temperature when fed, to prevent chilling the calf. While calves fed this way may get basic nutrition, they aren’t getting the emotional, physical and nutritional benefits that come from nursing the cow.

Nursing Benefits Calf And Cow

In a situation where the single calf nurses on the mother cow until weaned, the calf eats when hungry from a supply of milk that is never less than optimum feeding temperature. The sucking action causes the calf to produce a foamy, saliva that enhances the health benefits of both the cow and the calf.

organic_jersey_calvesThree baby heifers take in their warm morning milk in the barn on a cool Spring day.

In the calf, the saliva aids in their ability to digest the milk and get optimum nutrition from it. Even the cow reaps the benefit from being nursed. Not only is the saliva produced by the nursing calf healing to her teats, but it also provides a protective barrier that is thought to have a sealing action, which serves to keep bacteria from entering through the teat openings. This helps discourage mastitis and other udder health issues.

nursing_calf_jerseyA newborn Jersey calf is learning its way around mother’s udder.

The cow that nurses its own calf to weaning age is the ideal situation, but many farmers must still be able to manage more calves than cows in order to meet their financial goals and keep the farm afloat, and for many this means bottles and milk replacer. But, there is a better way.

The Dedicated Nurse Cow

Farmers, both large and small do have a viable option to the expense, inconvenience and inadequacies of bottle feeding milk replacer by using one or more nurse cows. At first glance, many farmers think feeding and caring for extra cows whose sole purpose is to raise calves is an expensive proposition.

jersey_cow_nursingWe just can’t say enough about number Forty-Nine. She is the ultimate nurse cow, she would nurse 10 at a time if she could. She is so sweet to them, always.

However, when you consider that many of these are quite capable of raising eight or more calves, (usually in two sets of four calves each, first group is on for 5 months, second group on for 5 months), during each lactation, the arithmetic begins to make sense. In addition, the cow will be producing one of these calves, saving even more money for the farmer.

Nurse cows can be handled a couple of different ways, depending on what the farmer needs her to do. In some cases, these cows can simply be turned out to pasture with two to four calves, once the calves have been successfully grafted on. As the calves grow and consume more milk, the cow will produce additional milk, as long as she is getting adequate nutrition.

jersey_cow_calvesA newborn Jersey calf feeds on a nurse cow as she has her navel inspected.

Many farmers, however, have better results with managing the nurse cow separately from the calves, allowing the calves access for nursing two to three times per day. This can make it easier to ensure that each calf gets equal access and that shyer calves nurse without being bullied by bigger ones.

If a single cow, single calf option cannot be maintained, the nurse cow provides the next best option. The milk is always fresh, and delivered at the perfect temperature. Both calf and the cow reap the benefits of the nursing action, as well as the natural interaction that takes place between cows and calves, such as grooming, and the natural social interaction of a herd situation.

Calmer Calves Make Calmer Cows

Dairy cattle in a commercial setting are losing their maternal instincts, because generation after generation have never been allowed to utilize them. Heifers who are raised and interact with their dam or a nurse cow, however, receive the benefit of the natural contact with the cow for the first months of their lives. This has a calming effect on them, especially as the cow will effectively instruct the youngster in proper herd etiquette, manners and social skills on a bovine level, that the farmer cannot imitate.

jersey_cow_calfForty-Nine has enough love to share with all the baby calves.

Cows that have had the benefit of solid nutrition as a dam-raised, or nursed calf, become excellent foragers as they mimic the cows that feed them. In addition, their high levels of nutrition through weaning can make them much more easily adaptable to grass and hay feeding regimens.

Overall, returning to the natural practice of raising calves on cows may just be the best way to heal the damage done to the dairy cattle breeds over the past half-century. If you are interested in returning the vitality, health and robust growth to your dairy cows, letting the cows do the work of feeding calves is a great place to start.


Farmer Guy June 25, 2014 Jersey Calves