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The House Calf

July 31, 2013

Keeping a house cow means we have a house calf too.  The house cow and calf enjoy a little different treatment than the beef cows and their calves.  The beef herd is off grazing in distant pastures for the entire grazing season, whereas the house cow and calf are confined to the home place for my convenience.  Milk is heavy, and I want Jane to carry it for any distance, not me.  I also want a little relief from twice-a-day milking in a few months.  Enter the calf, that necessary part of getting the milk in the first place.

If you’re involved in homeschooling at all, you’re for sure tired of that old saw, “what do you do about socialization?”  We simply chose to socialize our child with all ages, instead of just her peer group.  It’s pretty much the same with the house calf.  Dickie has learned things in his scant seven weeks of life that my little brat pack of calves will never even know of.  He has a vocabulary and he talks to us.  He is halter trained, he leads, he can be tethered, and he gets to be petted and brushed every day if we have the time.  The other calves have a pretty carefree life, running about and I will never lay a hand on them most likely more than a few times in their entire lives.

Imprinting begins right after the blessed event.  While newborn calves are weak for a few hours, they have a habit of getting very strong and wild, no matter how tame you think they must be.  Add to that fact that calves grow very fast, and they need to learn that you are bigger and stronger than them.  Wink, wink.  Twice a day, we fetch Dickie for milking.  I don’t believe in halters being left on stock in the field, so Dickie wears a collar.  At first, it’s a dog collar, until the calf is large enough to wear a stock collar, and when it ‘s time to come to the barn we use an adjustable rope halter that is one-size fits all.

Every time we handle Dickie it is a training session.  We can’t let him get away with things that won’t be so cute when he weighs 600 pounds.  So to that end, he has to learn we are not his playmates.  Cattle use their heads as weapons, and they are hard.  Since the head is their weapon they don’t particularly like their heads messed with, unless they want to ram you with it.  So at haltering time, we approach Dickie at the shoulder instead of coming at him head on.  Head on can mean I want to butt heads with him and play. Usually that approach will get you a calf putting his head down.  Bending down over a calf with their head lowered to put on a halter is a good way to get a concussion.  At least if I am at his shoulder, I have a better way of avoiding getting slammed, and I have more control once I slip the halter over his ears, I can reach under his chin and pull his head up while slipping on the nose band.  Usually (not always) cattle move their head up and down in this type of scenario.  Plus you have to remember, it’s not a fight twice a day, most of the time the calf behaves pretty well because they know you are taking them to something good.  In this case, mama and an udder of milk.  It’s relationship building.

On this day, it only took a few seconds for Dickie to try to rub on me.  He was bored with me stopping to get his photo taken and he tried to push on me.  Cute at this stage, but it won’t be when he is full-grown.  So I scolded him with a sharp “Ah Ah” and jerk on the rope.

Dickie B.

Dickie B.

That’s the reaction I got.  Tail up and flight zone between me and him restored.  Even his ear close to me is put back and out of the way.  After awhile these little “training sessions” become second nature to the handler and the calf may try something and a gentle correction is all it takes to remind them that they need to listen up.

Jane and Dickie get some time together for bonding, he nurses after we milk, and then she can groom him or play with him, while we are processing the milk, if need be she can put him in his place if he gets too rough.  It’ s her job to teach him how be a cow, and it’s our job to make him safe to be handled by humans.


For the most part, we just try to make it easy for them to behave.  We keep our routine, and we reward good behavior with lots of sweet talk, and petting.  All this adds up to making things go smoothly during the twice daily milking routine, and making Dickie a plus instead of a minus at chore time.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2013 9:49 pm

    I have calf envy! :-)) He is a beauty – he so reminds me of the Devon, the Red Devon, that was a familiar part of my growing up in the South West of England. The photographs are excellent.

    If I remember correctly, Birthday wishes are in order for today? Or is it tomorrow? About now anyway, so… Have a Happy Birthday and thanks for the excellent information and insights.

    • August 1, 2013 5:12 am

      Carrie, you should check out Auburn Meadow’s blog, she has Devons 🙂 I have to give my daughter the credit for the photos, when you compare the quality on this post compared to the garden post, you can see why I like to use her photos when I can 🙂

      It’s today, thanks so much.

  2. August 1, 2013 2:55 am

    It is amazing how quickly they grow. And how fast they learn. He’s very nice.

  3. August 1, 2013 3:04 am

    what an interesting post. i never knew about any of this or even thought of it for that matter! can you come and re-train teddy! she was too cute and now she is a handful!

    • August 1, 2013 5:16 am

      Jaz, ha ha, that’s why I start when they are a couple of days old. If he knew he could take off, he could drag me around for hours. They get so strong so quick, it’s pretty amazing really.

  4. August 1, 2013 3:10 am

    “they need to learn that you are bigger and stronger than them.” So true! Cows whose shoulders are as high as my head think I am higher in the cow pecking order than they are. And that is the way that it HAS to be. If they didn’t respect us they could kill us by accident.

    • August 1, 2013 5:20 am

      TC, I hate being thought of as a boss cow, but with the cows that’s pretty important! You have to get in close quarters with them on a daily basis much more than I do. Sometimes the corral work gets a little tense 😦

  5. August 1, 2013 4:56 am

    Very interesting! I really enjoy these posts :-).

  6. August 1, 2013 7:29 am

    I try to tell people with dogs and cats that they won’t be so cute with their antics later on. I like an animal that is trained so I don’t get hurt or just annoyed. Even my hens learned when I fed them at a certain time. Feeding them is how I get them back into their pen when I need to leave home. Otherwise, I would be chasing hens all day. I only have two right now, but they can outlast me and go places I cannot.

    • August 1, 2013 7:54 am

      Exactly! Predictability is everything when it comes to animal handling. Enough things can go wrong even on a good day!

  7. August 1, 2013 10:03 am

    The people I got my Dexter bull from trained him so once his halter and lead is on he doesn’t move his head. I don’t have cows at the moment but when I did I started the calves lead training by their second day. It’s funny, the people who purchased the calves were so impressed that they were lead broke. I think it’s a matter of ease of handling and manners…

  8. Bee permalink
    August 1, 2013 12:29 pm

    Early handling makes a tremendous difference! When hubby and I got married, it was one of the few things we argued over, especially with the horses. He grew up under the tutelage of a father who caught wild horses for a living in the Owyhee desert back in the 1940s. Their usual pattern was to let them go completely unhandled until they were yearlings or even 2-year-olds. Of course, that meant a rodeo and a terrified horse. I remember my father-in-law commenting one time that it wasn’t worth it tbegreenwoodo raise your own colts because you lost two out of three — gee, I wonder why… I grew up handling my colts the minute they hit the ground. Eventually, hubby learned that my way worked better, and he was impressed by the fact that we didn’t lose colts. In thirty years of raising Quarter Horses we lost two colts, both from illnesses, and we had as many as 24 mares on the place. I’ve even found that gentling works with older cows, too. We have one cow that was a range cow; we got her at 18 months. She now allows you to go up to her and scratch while she eats her grain. Not to say we nicey-nice them; they still get disciplined as necessary. Her yearling calf got pushy with me the other night when we were feeding and got whacked with the be-good stick to remind him of his manners. You can discipline or be dominated, and when it comes to a 1,000-pond-plus animal, I prefer the former.

  9. August 1, 2013 5:38 pm

    We have had two calves born to our milk cow so far and have yet to successfully halter train either, so I appreciate this post! A question we had reading this post was about taking Dickie to his mama & the milk twice a day- how does that work? It doesn’t sound like the 12 hours on/12 hours off, but maybe I’m not reading it right.

    Also, I read recently where if you put the calf on mama instead of bottle feeding, she’ll hold back the cream for the baby. Has this been your experience? We really don’t want the chore of bottle feeding, but have never gotten much of a cream line worth skimming. I always assumed it was just a Dexter thing and resolved to be content with no butter. As always, thanks so much for sharing all of your wisdom and experience with us 🙂

    • August 1, 2013 8:00 pm

      Reformationacres, I separate at about the second day and let the calf milk after I do. So basically the calf eats twice a day as 12 hour intervals. Hence the need for halter training, the only time the cow and calf are together is after milking for a short time. I don’t like bottle feeding either, and once the calf is large enough to drink an entire milkings worth, I can take a milking off every once in awhile. It is true about the hind milk (last milk, not the milk from the hind quarters) has more cream, but depending on the cow and her letdown for you, you can get enough cream for butter,etc. Sharemilking with the calf being withheld only part time usually results in the cow giving you what she deems you need, and that isn’t much cream:( It also may be that your cow doesn’t really give a large enough volume of milk for you and the calf. Some folks swear by Dexters, but unless you have one from a milky line, she probably knows that her calf needs at least 2 gallons a day for sustenance and you get the rest. My cow does give me enough cream for butter making, but I am sure Dickie’s share has more cream than mine. But we make do.

      Thanks for the kind comment.

      • August 4, 2013 5:27 am

        Thanks so much for your response- it was very helpful! I do have another question if that’s alright… I’ve been gleaning from you for probably over a year now as we try to learn to care for cattle, and don’t know if you ever posted the details about how you raised Jane. If I’m remembering correctly, her mother died at birth. We lost our Dexter this morning after calving early yesterday. (She seemed fine last night at 10p- even was eating, so we don’t know what happened.) My husband milked out her colostrum. The calf took a bottle and the rest is in the fridge, but after that we have no clue what to do. A nurse cow isn’t an option and we want to give this little heifer not only a chance, but the best start possible. Any help you can give me at all or links/title to an old post is most greatly appreciated! Quinn
        (sorry if this is a duplicate comment- wordpress is giving me a rough time here 🙂 )

        • August 4, 2013 6:59 am

          So sorry to hear that 😦 It’s tough when you have a baby to contend with let alone losing a cow. I went the milk replacer route, which isn’t ideal but is better than nothing. Give the calf the rest of the colostrum, colostrum is very important and each hour that passes the calf loses the ability to absorb the antibodies in the colostrum, so time is of the essence. When feeding milk from a bottle always warm to cow body temperature, cold too hot is not good. Buy non-medicated milk replacer if you can, the medication in the milk replacer just irritates the gut, and many times is not needed. I would aim for as many small feedings (pint or quart) as you can manage during the day, gradually working yourself down to three or two a day in a week or two. What has worked best for me to mix the milk replacer is to use boiling water for half the portion of the water needed (instructions on the bag) and use a whisk to thoroughly mix and dissolve the powdered milk, then cool down with cold water to the 100 degrees. Bottles are best at first, because if the calf sucks they secrete saliva and that helps the digestive process. You don’t want them to chug their meal, so don’t be tempted to prick a bigger hole in the nipple. To keep the calf from butting the bottle you can buy a bottle hanger that will hang on the fence so the calf is butting that and not you. They butt to get the cow to let down her milk, and it’a natural response, they don’t do it to be mean.

          Good luck – you’ll be busy for a while with this new project!

        • August 4, 2013 6:32 pm

          This is such incredibly helpful, valuable information! I really can’t express just how appreciative I am for your haven taken the time to share all this with me. Thank you!!

  10. sherry permalink
    August 1, 2013 6:34 pm

    I totally agree with Bee, when we had a foal and my father in law was over he was amazed that he already was halter broke and lead well. I am still the ‘alpha mare’ with my two mountain horses – at least I’m alpha somewhere !!

  11. jackie permalink
    August 1, 2013 9:48 pm

    I am a complete city girl who is a farmer in her dreams…so forgive my ignorance. But why do you have a blindfold on your cow in the top picture? I love your blog…I live on a farm vicariously through it!

    • August 2, 2013 5:23 am

      Jackie, it’s a fly mask, like what horses wear but one for cows.

      • jackie permalink
        August 3, 2013 9:41 pm

        Oh thanks! I want one for myself when I am out tending my potted plants…the flys and mosies in the midwest this year are terrible!

  12. Cindy permalink
    August 5, 2013 12:02 pm

    Lovely cows, I am dreaming of one day! Will Dickie be a steer or will he go to freezer camp long before that is needed? I so agree with routine, with all my livestock, chickens, dogs, and the three boys I gave birth to, routine is critical for all of them!

    • August 5, 2013 12:07 pm

      Cindy, thanks! Dickie will go to freezer camp when he is two, so he’ll be a steer pretty soon. Right now he is enjoying being called RED BULL 🙂

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