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Raiser’s edge, growing a more self-sufficient milk cow.

September 13, 2010

Myra – 1982 – 1996, my first purebred Guernsey.

Sometimes to get a milk cow, you have to buy a dairy calf and raise it yourself.  Or sometimes, as in the case of Jane, (whose mother died) you have to raise it yourself.  My hope for Jane is that I want her to live a long, full, productive life like her mother, Della, who gave me 9 live calves out of 10 births or Myra, who gave me 12 live calves out of 12 births.  Della was dam raised, and Myra was a bottle/bucket calf raised on milk replacer.  I am raising Jane exactly like I did Myra 30 years ago.  While I believe a dam-raised calf is best for a future milk cow, cows aren’t reading my blog, so a post about the how I am raising Jane is in order.

Myra – 1985

It’s not hard to find information on raising bottle calves.  The tag on the milk replacer bag, the internet, the feedstore guy, the people down the road that brings home sale barn calves, or maybe a local dairy.  Those recommendations would most likely be:  feed 2 qts  medicated milk replacer or waste milk twice a day; introduce calf starter or grain immediately via bottle or pan; provide clean water; and withhold hay or roughage to avoid hay belly.  I am not good at taking instruction – my bottle calves get bottle fed milk or milk replacer 4 x a day for awhile, they are exposed to grass or hay immediately and they don’t get grain until they are older, if at all.  No hay bellies here.  First old wives tale to dispense:  hay bellies are not from eating hay, hay bellies are caused by not feeding milk long enough, and substituting the needed milk protein with grain protein.  Western reductionist thinking at work here.  All proteins are not created equal, and each compartment of the cows digestive system works a little differently, and need to be developed while they are calves, or else you have adult cows that have digestive problems.  Makes for a good veterinary bill, but really, a lot can be avoided with proper feeding that takes the cow into consideration instead of convenience and production.  Basically if you want a cow that does well on forage, allow the calf forage.  If you want a cow that needs grain to keep her condition acceptable, feed them grain at an early age. If you see a calf with a pot belly, know that the calf has been very hungry for much of its early life.  There are other signs too, a runty looking face with turned up nose, and rough coat of hair.  Once you have seen a calf like this, you can spot them a mile off.  And it isn’t always human fault, some beef cows don’t raise a good calf.  The best fix in a beef herd is culling.  For a cow to be economically viable, it should re-breed within 60 days of calving, raise a good looking calf and keep her body condition up.  I have seen beef cows that will re-breed, raise a crappy calf and get fat – that is not a cow you want.

Somehow with dairy cows the template is totally different.  They are fed different, they don’t normally raise their calves because the milk is sold or consumed by the human family, and the calves are just a means to the end.   There are a great number of studies out there exploring the differences between bottle vs pail feeding, grain vs hay and pasture,  and depending on who is paying for the study, most information you will find will tell you that the rumen develops better if you feed grain at a early age, instead of forage.  When I read or hear statements like those, I wonder how cows survived without us growing corn for them before the plow came along.  And the argument that a modern dairy cow is not in any way a natural cow doesn’t hold water with me – she is still a cow, and should be treated as such.  And if you’re a new reader, I am not against feeding my milk cow grain if she needs it to keep her condition.  View grain as a supplement, if you will.

My intent with this post is to show that there is no need to raise a family cow in the same manner a dairy heifer gets raised.  Many of the recommendations you find are based on time management, and high production for fluid milk sales.   In a farmstead setting, you have a choice.  I am bottle feeding one calf, so this is about that, not trying to be a dairy.  I want a farmstead cow who can forage most of her own food and can eat what I am able to grow.  In these lean times a family cow can be an asset or a liability.  Maybe the economy will magically improve, or maybe not.  I feel pretty strongly that if you don’t have adequate pasture you shouldn’t own livestock anyway, but I am sure I will hear disagreements on that one.

If I want to raise a healthy calf on grass and milk, I need to observe the “experts in the field” literally.  My beef cows.  They live many years, cycle and have calves every year, and they thrive on the grass and hay that grows here right on my farm.  So really, as you can see, a calf can grow into a healthy cow on milk, grass and minerals.  So why short change a dairy calf when we expect so much from her?  A baby calf on its mother nurses frequently and tries to eat grass or hay immediately.   The calf nurses warm milk and the milk goes to the abomasum where the milk fat and protein is digested before going on to the small intestine for nutrient absorption.   To simulate that, a bottle fed dairy calf should nurse with its head at least in a horizontal position so the esophageal groove will close and direct the milk to the abomasum instead of to the rumen where it can’t be utilized as well or not at all,  in some cases.  Nursing stimulates saliva production to help digest the milk proteins and fats.  Drinking milk from a bucket with the head down can result in the milk going to rumen instead and significantly less saliva production.  It’s no wonder some calves scour, and don’t do well.  Simplifying the feeding process to hurry it up gives them a tummy ache, and can shortchange them nutritionally too.  Nursing helps jaw development also, which is important in an animal that is expected to earn its living eating forages.

Chewing her cud.

Jane received colostrum and her mother’s milk until day 3, and then was switched to 2 quarts of 20-20 non-medicated milk replacer via nursing bottle, 4 times a day until about 2 weeks ago.   Now she has graduated to a nipple bucket with a ball check nipple assembly.  She has to suck that nipple pretty hard to get her milk, and that is what you want.  When I wash it and squeeze the nipple it feels the same as milking a cow.  I am feeding her 3 quarts 3 times a day now, which is a slight increase of a quart per day.  I plan to feed her milk until the spring grass is coming on and wean her from milk at that time.  Basically, the same schedule my beef cows are on.  They calve in late May – early June and wean their calves in about February or March.  No-stress weaning at it’s best.  When spring grass comes on, mother’s milk is the farthest thing from those calves’ mind.  Jane might take a little more convincing, since bottle babies are – can be – pests.


After milk feedings, she has access to hay, in addition to pasture.  She doesn’t really eat much, since she has access to grass 24/7, but it exposes her to what she will eating as an adult: our long stemmed, seed-head full, grass hay.  I want a family cow that produces a good amount of butterfat in proportion to milk.  Choosing a breed known for its high fat content milk helps, but what the cow eats is a determining factor too.  Roughage increases a cows acetic acid production and can increase milk fat.  For high roughage hay, (and I am not talking straw here or tough rank hay, folks) I mean cutting a sward for hay that has expressed itself, seed heads and all – I know this flies in the face of what most call good hay and pasture.  A cow also needs to produce propionic acid to aid in the production of butterfat, which you can increase by feeding grain or starches.  Too much and butterfat content is reduced.  But let her graze fully rested pastures with seed heads or feed hay made from the same pastures and you have your starch, or grain, if you will.   It just takes a little re-thinking of what is really good hay and pasture.  Most want leafy, green hay for their stock.  And I know it is hard to buck the industry, your neighbors and GAHP (Generally Accepted Hay Practices).  But, you know I have to ask the “experts in the field” again, or at least just look at them – they are all slick and shiny and they are eating that tall, rested pasture every day.


A cow with a poorly functioning rumen should be thought of as a lame horse.  Still getting around but not 100% for sure.  No one thinks of making a horse run the race if it is lame, but we expect dairy cows to produce, produce and produce.  And yes, I want Jane to produce – a calf every year when she reaches breeding age, and I want her to raise that calf with enough extra milk for my household needs.  For her to be able to do that, she needs to be developing strong bone structure, and a healthy large rumen.  So she needs access to full feed, water, exercise and rest to do that.  I am going against the grain here, dumping grain into the young rumen doesn’t develop it, it actually causes the rumen papillae to become thickened and blunt instead of long and hairy as in a grass-fed rumen.  (Scroll down in this post to see a well developed rumen.) And I know there are many studies that will show that a rumen thickened by grain is a good thing, and a rumen developed by grass is not as good.  So I guess what I am trying to say is, believe and do what you want with your cow, but before you go the grain route, compare a beef cow and her calf, to a dairy cow and its calf, instead of comparing your family cow to a dairy cow.   Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are rumens.


These three show the tremendous growth that  that must take place in 2 years.  L – R, 27 months, 4 months and 15 months.  That is a lot of cud chewing.

Jane & Ty.

Jane today at 4 months.  She has grown 4 ½ inches since birth, so she is progressing at a normal growth rate.  I would like to see more back fat on her, but that is the difference between milk replacer and whole milk.  Myra milked off her back, Della did not.  Genetics? Difference in feed?  Dam raised vs. bottle raised?  Time will tell with Jane.   If I followed most recommended calf weaning protocols Jane would have been weaned some time ago, or at least by now at this age.  Too soon for me and too soon for Jane.

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39 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2010 12:51 am

    Thank you.

  2. September 14, 2010 2:27 am

    We have always flown in the face of the experts and fed whole milk and free choice hay to our calves right from starting. They do best when they can at least see a cow eat and drink so we tie them among the cows where possible. It is not unusual to see a three day old working the paddle on the water bowl. We do feed grain, but….they are chewing their cud very early

    • September 14, 2010 5:08 am

      Yes, definitely you have 🙂 It definitely makes a difference when they see the other cows – Jane was grazing well, but now with that bigger steer here at the house, she is grazing more and learning how everything works in the barnyard. She also learned the pecking order pretty quick with the big crabby heifer (who now has went on to greener pastures…)

  3. Marcia in Wyoming permalink
    September 14, 2010 4:21 am

    Very educational – thanks! I see a huge difference in condition in my Molly – raised at a large dairy – and her yearling heifer – dam raised here…wish I could have started from scratch with Molly. By the way – we are trying the horn weights with the heifer – she looks like she’s trying to receive satellite signals :))

    • September 14, 2010 5:15 am

      Marcia, I saw the same thing, I didn’t know what I knew about raising calves, it was just the way I was taught, until I bought Della’s mom – a dairy raised springer – she was the sweetest cow but she was hard to keep in condition, hard to rebreed, and she didn’t last too long – 7 years. I think her early weaning and feeding had a huge impact on her life. At first I was thinking milk replacer but Myra lived twice as long – so early weaning would be my guess. No way to really know.

      Can’t wait to hear more about the weights – I am glad though that I de-horned Jane – I keep checking for scurs but so far so good 🙂 I don’t want her looking too much like a goober 🙂

  4. September 14, 2010 6:40 am

    In total agreement with you. We’re bottle feeding a beef calf, that is 4 months old too. Everyone of the area ranchers ask when we plan on weaning him and we tell them late Winter, early Spring. Of course they all say, What? he should be weaned already.*sigh* Yet they all seem to be watching and noticing the condition( size, weight,sheen of coats,) etc… of our cows verse theirs.*wink*

    When it’s not about money but the health and well being of the animals, it’s amazing what can transpire. They are all in it for the quick $$$ and could really care less about the health of the animals long term.

    Thanks for posting this information for all to read.
    Blessings,
    Kelle

    • September 14, 2010 6:46 am

      Kelle, the difference is astounding isn’t it? A friend of mine recently purchased two different Jerseys from two different farms, one was dam raised and her condition was excellent, the other cow who was a bottle calf judging from her pest attitude, is thin but slick, and is not putting on weight like my friend would like to see on the same feed. Both are young cows.

      If only they could all be raised on their mothers milk…sigh.

  5. finding pam permalink
    September 14, 2010 7:54 am

    I am so impressed with your Knowledge. You explain everything in such good detail that even a new country girl like myself gets it. Beautiful photos.

    Seems like all your neighbors have an opinion. I don’t know if I would like that unsolicited advice.Thank you for sharing.

    • September 16, 2010 5:22 am

      FindingPam, thanks, as for the neighbors – oh well, I just mind my manners and listen, sometimes I speak up – most of the time I don’t.

  6. September 14, 2010 8:13 am

    I grew up with Brown Swiss and Jersey and althought we had holsteins when I married Terry, my love is still the brown swiss or jersey.

    A good post, well done!

    Linda
    http://coloradofarmlife.wordpress.com

    • September 16, 2010 5:24 am

      Linda, the Brown Swiss are so pretty, but gee you hardly see them anymore. Mostly Holsteins and Jerseys now everywhere. But they are all pretty, I guess I am just partial to the Guernseys 🙂

  7. September 14, 2010 1:21 pm

    We hope to never have to hand raise a calf because in order to do it right you have to be dedicated…..like you;) Good job.

    • September 16, 2010 5:25 am

      Linda, I wish I didn’t have to raise Jane this way – but I didn’t want to go out and buy a cow either – so here I am… 😦

  8. September 14, 2010 1:22 pm

    So fascinating to read about what to do for the animal’s well-being. Thank you. What is the medication in the milk replacer? Antibiotics? Would you feed her cow’s milk (from a cow not her mother), if you had that available, instead of the replacer, or try to get, say, a beef cow to adopt the dairy orphan?

    • September 16, 2010 5:33 am

      NM, thank you. Yes, the medication is antibiotics which could help if there was an actual problem – but to just feed it in case is not a good idea. Probiotics are a better prevention, and of course cleanliness in housing, and feeding essential but often overlooked. I would feed her cows milk, but raw milk here goes for $10 -12 per gallon and at 2 gallons a day that would be cost prohibitive, and finding a good healthy milk cow isn’t easy or cheap either. And as for grafting a calf, you need a cow that gives enough milk for more than her own calf (that’s why I don’t like the current trend of “dual-purpose” cattle as family cows) and you need a very willing cow or a strong constitution to get a reluctant cow to accept a calf that is not her own. All doable solutions, but milk replacer can be used successfully if you don’t have a good milk supply.

  9. September 14, 2010 4:45 pm

    Fascinating! I am always amazed at the “real” way farming should work. The process, as you detail it, is more work for the farmer but it is the way earlier generations would have learned – by watching the animals and what/how they eat. Thank you for the “lesson”. I’m glad Jane is doing well!

    • September 16, 2010 5:35 am

      4BushelFarmgal, thanks – Jane is doing very good, I think. It is more work, but worth it in the long run. She should live as long as most peoples pets and just think of the care and training that people invest in a pup!

  10. Regina permalink
    September 14, 2010 5:12 pm

    Both our horses and cattle love mature hay with grain, we’ve put out grass, alfalfa and barley hay at the same time due to broken bales, etc. It’s the coarse, faded looking barley hay that they eat first. They leave bright green grass or alfalfa every time.

    You’re right, cows don’t read. 😉

  11. September 14, 2010 6:43 pm

    SO much information! Thanks! I’m going to have to reread this several times to digest it all! Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  12. September 15, 2010 3:07 am

    I just love to read your blog. You are so knowledgeable and so good with your animals. With every blog entry, you educate someone — hopefully several someones!
    I do not have the acreage for the stamina, at my age, to have farm animals, other than maybe a few chickens, which I might get next spring, but I just marvel at how sensible you are.
    I know there are many who mistreat their animals because they look upon them as just “food”, not realizing that you get what you put into it. Bless you for taking the time in your busy day to blog and for doing what you can to change people’s attitudes about their livestock. Hugs, Ilene in Oklahoma

    • September 16, 2010 6:32 am

      Ilene, thank you for such a kind comment, well at least the “advice” is free maybe it will help maybe not. It’s hard to tell if what I write about is interesting or not. Thanks again.

  13. MMP permalink
    September 15, 2010 6:34 pm

    I’ve thought about the scouring question also. My experience is with goats, but the advice is still to avoid feeding too much milk to avoid scouring. I prefer dam raised, but I have done bottle raised when required (I have use milk from my herd, I haven’t had to use milk replacer). I have always been impressed at how much milk they will drink when I am measuring it and found that far more than recommended didn’t cause scouring. I know about the groove, so I use a good nursing position when bottle feeding. I have watched for scouring and been pleasantly surprised that it has not been a problem for me. Maybe the milk, or the stance, has saved me.

    • September 16, 2010 6:36 am

      MMP, it is amazing how much they can drink isn’t it. Scours has many faces, the color of the feces can tell you who the culprit is, usually, and most are environmental, as in unclean barn conditions. I don’t have any experience with goats but scours from “overfeeding” is only a relative term when someone has been underfeeding. But convincing people of that fact is hard to do. I think your attention to detail in feeding your goats makes the difference. It all adds up, good milk, regular schedule, cleanliness and the correct position. It’s when some of the good husbandry practices start to fall off that problems start. Congrats on your goat babies 🙂

  14. Carrina permalink
    September 16, 2010 8:11 pm

    I love your post and read it religiously.

    I would love to get a dairy cow but our pasture is small- about 1 1/2 acres- and in pretty rough shape with lots of oxeye daisy. It is pretty steep and hard to hay so I would prefer to try a rotational grazing system like the one you have described to try to improve the quality. How much pasture is enough to support a cow and calf?

  15. Ruth permalink
    September 17, 2010 7:20 am

    very interesting! always enjoyed the Guernsey best and remember one Mrs. Brown quite fondly. As for breeds, to a child (when I was a child), the guernsey seemed so much more gentle and sweet of spirit than the Jersey and definitely nicer than the Holstein (Susie was a stubborn, vindictive Holstein my parents kept and milked). The post was very informative. thanks!

  16. September 21, 2010 2:47 pm

    You can tell that you know what you are doing. Feeding a young calf many times a day is more important than a lot of farmers think. Also, the way you describe how the esopageal groove works is very educational and exactly right.A lot of professional farmers can learn something from what you have written. As a matter of fact I have as well.

    I am a professional in the cattle business and I am always looking for improvement of the health conditions of cattle, especially calves.
    The things I know and what I am still learning, I want to share with other people. That is why I started my own website lately. If you’ll allow me, I want to write something on my blog about the information you have on your site, so then my readers can benefit from it too.

    Keep on raising cattle the way you think it is best, you seem to be doing a good job.

    • September 23, 2010 1:42 pm

      I took the liberty to write about you on my blog. Please let me know if you consider this inappropriate and I will remove it immediately.

      I want you to know that I have the greatest respect for you.

  17. Marjori Ollson permalink
    September 27, 2010 1:53 pm

    …WWOOHOO! How refreshing to read about truly independent thinking (and living it!).. Forgive me in my tardiness in finding your blog/site (I’m technologically challenged) but, it makes me feel brand new all over. Here in the ‘mental desert’ of rural Arizona the current ruminant raising is an embarrassment at least as practiced by my former boss (he’s ranch manager for a large copper mining outfit in addition to his budding political aspirations….more l8r) whom on the day of my interview @local sale yard, couldn’t ‘wait for them to mother up’ and told his peons to take the 5 calves (approx. 4 weeks of age) up to the tailing’s “we’ll hand raise em” then next week when JG gets back he can take them cows to the auction! …..Huh? I didn’t realize what the next few months would be like , OMG. Those poor little things, hay 2x a day and all the water they could want, this man is the president or recent past pres., of AZ Cattle Grower’s Assoc.! Enough ’bout that… Many years ago for my 4Th birthday, my dad gave me a nanny goat, heh heh. 😉 He had ulterior motives the likes of which provided much entertainment amongst the conjecture of his peers. He & Momma went down to the city to a dairy and bought a couple day old calves, hauling em home in the trunk of Mom’s Plymouth ( lid loosely tied). He taught the nanny to “Get up on the box Nanny” and she raised those calves (soon to be steers) slicker ‘n shit! My Mom always said ‘more than one way to skin a cat!’ People loved to stop by in the evening to have a beer and watch that nanny goat’s funny lookin kids! Thanks for sharing your experience, I’m grateful to have found the trail here.:))

  18. val S permalink
    October 6, 2010 7:57 am

    I am so glad I found your site and what a great read, I am currently raising a lovely mixed breed (half dairy/half beef) calf for my future milk cow and I have been really struggling with the idea of weaning her so early, per the bag instructions and the farmer down the road I got her from..

    I also moved her to four times a day when I got her home and then after a month, moved her to three times a day, I have started her nibbling on hay and will encourge it even more, I think I will buck the system and feed her milk till six months, my lambs all nurse off their moms for that long at least.

    I have her eating her calf ration very well and can’t see taking that away now but will keep in mind that she will most likely need to be feed some grain ration for the rest of her days..

    I take her for walks in the pasture and try and get to her nibble or mouth this or that, and she does have acess to pasture in her own paddock.

    Loved reading your post, now on to read more on the site.

    Val

  19. January 6, 2011 8:43 pm

    I have a lovely cow (1/2 limousin , 1/4 holstein, 1/4 Jersey) who produced and raised a beautiful and quick growing bull calf this year. I expect her new calf in about 6 weeks. Should this calf be a girl I would like to keep her and have another milk cow. The new calf’s sire is 100% Jersey.

    I have robbed the mother’s milk (about 1/2 gallon at a time) quite regularly while she nursed her 2010 calf, and she is reasonably well-behaved in the stanchion. She was orphaned and I have always attributed her ease of training to having hand raised her.

    My question is this: If I should allow the new calf to be dam raised how shall I train her to the stanchion? This year’s calf won’t let me touch him…which is fine as he will be processed at the appointed time.

    I have 7 dairy goats who all dam raise their young. We play with the babies enough that socialization is never an issue. They come to the stand and nibble while Mom is milked and they learn to love the place. Obviously a calf is not as easy to play with, and having the little bull calf anywhere near the stanchion this year created a fight over who was to get the milk, me, or him.

    Your suggestions please. Can I dam raise her and still hope to have her become a decent and gentle milk cow?

    Thank you,
    Keri Jo

    • January 6, 2011 9:18 pm

      Keri Jo, your cow sounds very nice. I dam raise all my milk cow’s calves and I share milk. But, my version of sharemilking is different than what most advocate. I milk twice a day and then let the calf nurse after I am done. I like that the calf is my relief milker when it gets older, and could possibly drink all that the cow can produce in 12 hours. I do halter and lead train the calf within the first week, and I control when the calf drinks. It means more work for me, providing a separate area for grazing the calf, etc, and keeping the calf separate from it dam – but I have done this for years, and I like the way the calf acts after this type of training. They are tractable and easily caught when they are older. They do not forget their early training. But since I never bottle feed they retain a good flight zone and are safer as a milk cow when they are older. I treat bulls and heifers the same way.

      Hope that helps – if you have more questions don’t hesitate to ask 🙂

  20. March 4, 2012 5:48 pm

    I just read this post now and it explained a question that I had in the back of my mind for a while. We had raised a steer calf using milk replacer and followed all the instructions about feeding grain and developing rumen. Then we brought home our dairy cow with calf and I wondered if it was bad for the calf to eat grass! It seemed really a stupid question, of course the calf should eat grass, but the advice for our first calf had been to withhold grass. Your post made a lot of sense, made me think about who is giving the advice and the motivation behind it. I think that what we did with that first calf was a false economy, sure we weaned early and didn’t have to buy another bag of milk replacer, but we bought special “calf raising” pellets instead (the folks at the feed store saw us newbes coming!), when we could have just given him grass. Our little dairy calf is doing well on her mother’s milk and lots of grass, so I’m glad we raised her naturally, but we’re not looking forward to weaning her in a few months, I expect lots of moo-ing!

    • March 4, 2012 7:47 pm

      Liz, lots of mooing, we used to force wean, our choice of when, not the cow or calf, and we tried the “right” moon, strong fencing, earplugs and who knows what. Until we got smart enough to let the cows wean their calves, voilà, peace and quiet. But sometimes calves need to be weaned and there is a lot of noise, they really want their baba 🙂

      Jane’s mom would wean her calf and then let me milk about 4 more weeks, then that was it – we were both kicked off the milk habit, literally 🙂

  21. April 5, 2013 8:15 pm

    …”withhold hay or roughage to avoid hay belly” I can’t help but wonder, what do they have against a hay belly?

    I enjoyed your post.

    • April 5, 2013 8:24 pm

      I should have read your post better before I replied… I guess cows are a bit different than goats… a ‘hay belly’ would be desirable on a goat as long as they were not being shown in goat shows.

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