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The Calf

November 13, 2015
handmade maple milking stool

handmade maple milking stool

It’s been a long time since I posted about how we handle the house calf, and there are as many ways to train a calf, or not train as there are stars in the sky I think.  So take all this with a grain of salt, this is what works for us, and makes milking go smoothly.


Why train you ask? Well, for us, because of the way we share the milk with the calf we need to be able to handle the calf for many months.  For us to be able to do that safely, we have to be in control.  Don’t tell Raylan, but at five weeks of age, he can already take off with us, he just doesn’t know it because we started training him early, like days old early.  Never underestimate the strength of an animal, even a baby one.  I’m not saying either that you can’t take a cow that has never been handled and spend some time getting them tame.  You can, and many people like to channel their inner Disney fill in the blank whisperer mode and wow folks with their lion taming prowess.  That’s not me.  I’ve been trampled, pushed into a wall, and numerous other things by tame cattle over the years, so if I have to handle the calf a couple of times a day I like to just start them early, and keep things simple and safe and stress free. We do not train our beef calves to lead or anything like that because if we need to handle them we can use the corral.  They are always with their moms, and learn about the corral as part of their training.  If we ever need to restrain one of the beefers they go in the corral and we use a headgate.  Apples and oranges.

To train the house calf we start out the first day with a simple baling twine “collar” just so we can guide the wobbly calf around, or catch them.  At this point they are still with mama but you may need to act as a lactation consultant, and it’s handy to just be able to hold that twine collar and use it to steer the calf while you are gently guiding, and pushing forward or to the side on the rear.

In a couple of days the calf can graduate to a nylon dog collar that is a little more sturdy and doesn’t cut in if you have to grab the calf quickly.  For the first few days they are acting on instinct and can startle at anything strange or new, or even get scared by their moms.  The collar on the calf comes in handy.  To adjust the fit, you can use a torch and heat a nail to melt more holes in the collar.  We have several sizes because the calves grow so fast at this age.

Right now Raylan is already in a cattle collar, which has a bigger D-ring for clipping the lead rope on.  Just a little detail like that makes daily handling so simple.  We have several sizes of these and also a handmade leather one or two that we use.


Apologies for the blurry photos, camera phone, low light, moving calf.  Sigh.  The first order of business is teaching the calf to stand tied, this teaches the calf that they can’t just go anywhere they please.  The sooner they learn this the easier it is.  Sooner means the younger they are the better, three or four days of age is about right.  Or you can plan on needing a very stout post.  Tantrums will ensue, and you have to be present.  Tie the calf to a sturdy post down low and with maybe about three feet of slack on the rope.  Their first reaction is to pull back, they may fall over in a fit and act like they are gasping their last.  We usually do this while we are cleaning the stall, and hopefully mom is out of sight. If the calf falls over, make him get up.  I usually let them stand a few minutes pulling (make sure the snap is underneath their throat or they can choke) and then give them a touch or a shove on the butt to move them forward so they feel the release of pressure.  It may take few times over a couple of days, but they soon realize if they step up on their own the aren’t feeling that pressure on their neck that they don’t like. The most important part of this is that once the calf thinks it can’t get away when it’s tethered this will transfer in their minds to just about every leading and tying scenario even when they are grown.  That three feet is about all the slack they think they will have.  Raylan may go straight up, or straight sideways in a burst of exuberance, but that’s it, a quick scolding and firm pull gets him back in line.  Jane will once in a while try something funny, but hardly ever, and you usually know it’s coming and can be ready for it.  And that’s all from her being handled and trained simple leading and tying at a young age.

Eyebolt with ring for tying the calf during milking

Eyebolt with ring to tying the calf during milking

The calf has to be restrained while I milk, so this is important to learn.  Stand still and be quiet and you will get fed soon.  Even if the calf nurses the cow instead of drinking from a bottle, the calf knows we are in charge of food.  Don’t let anyone tell you cows are stupid.  They are like big dogs, every move you make is training or untraining, they don’t miss a beat.

All of our stalls have these handy eyebolts for tying and cross tying. The eyebolt with a ring mounted with a bridge washer on the backside is very strong and good for securing calves and cows.

Eyebolt secured with bridge washer backside of stall.

Eyebolt secured with bridge washer backside of stall.


Coming in at milking time.

Coming in at milking time.

We keep our milking routine the same, we know what to expect, and the cow and calf know what to expect.  In the morning the calf is led from his night stall to the milking area and tied, then we get the cow.  While the cow is being milked the calf has to chill.  After I milk, the calf nurses while the milk is processed.  Even if I was bottle feeding the calf I still expect them to stand tied, and be led.  It’s the same as basic obedience training for dogs.

Waiting for his turn.

Waiting for his turn.


lead rope with swivel snap and soft rope adjustable halter

lead rope with swivel snap and soft rope adjustable halter

I’m not a fan of leaving halters on any animal, they rub the hair off and are harder to fit a growing calf properly.  I might caution that they could catch the halter on something and hurt themselves, but I’ve never seen that happen and it’s just as likely to happen with a collar too.  The collar works good, fits for a longer time and it does come in handy if the calf is being a piss ant.  To lead, a soft rope adjustable halter works the best.  You just approach the calf, put the halter on, and set off to the barn.  It really helps that the calf knows you are leading him to his food, his nice warm stall, or something good.  Otherwise he has no incentive to do what you want.  Relationship building is really important, we make sure that we don’t abuse the trust the calf or cow has.  You want the cow or calf to come to you and allow you to put on their barn gear.

Soon the calf will be a large animal and with a little daily handling/training will remain tractable.  All they need to know is what to expect from you, and a few basic commands. Just remember the main thing is to be firm and consistent.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2015 7:05 pm

    Thank you so much for this teaching post. I may never be able to milk again or train a calf, but I am so glad that you wrote down how to do it so I can give this to my grandchildren who haven’t had the chance to train a calf yet. I do enjoy your blog so much! I am 80 and still garden, but had to give up my milking and now have a great-grandson who will need to know this someday. Thank you!
    Grandma Sarah in Alabama.

  2. Roslyn McNeill permalink
    November 13, 2015 7:32 pm

    Oh WOW this is so helpful – I finally bought a farm and in years past, I bought half a grass fed beef cow from a local farm, and just picked up the meat at the slaughterhouse. But next spring I want to buy the feeder calf myself and run him in my pasture, then have him hauled to the slaughterhouse in fall. I don’t know the usual age for a feeder calf, but I’m sure it will be more than a few days old. I will need him tractable enough to catch and control so is there additional advice you might have for instilling cooperation in an older calf, who won’t have any other cattle to teach him the ropes? I am also going to get a few goats who will be permanent residents here, but they will be new too and also won’t know the procedures here. Do you have someone come to the farm for butchering, or take them to the abattoir? I know you wrote a post about this at least once but I can’t find it….

    • November 14, 2015 5:25 am

      Roslyn, feeder calves are weaned and hopefully 6 – 9 months old at that time, and then you would have an easier time of raising the calf into a fine 18 – 24 month old butcher steer or heifer. A few day old calf needs milk for months, at least twice a day, so I would recommend buying calves from a farmer that sells feeder calves. And I would definitely plan on getting two, they are social animals and having a mate in the pasture will help them adjust to a new farm and keep them calm and growing and gaining weight. We do take ours to the abattoir because there is not a competent mobile slaughter business in our area. They either can’t manage their truck, or they don’t handle the business end professionally or they are just too sketchy. You’ll have to ask around to see if you have a good mobile butcher in your area. The hardest part is loading to haul and you need a corral with a chute and a proper trailer for hauling cattle. Most folks aren’t set up for cows, usually they think cattle are like horses and will just go in the trailer…ha ha, even if they haven’t trained them to do so. We have been asked to help people numerous times to haul their cattle for them, and no more, it’s usually ends up being a ridiculous rodeo with tempers flaring and mad people, and always a waste of our time. So unless you’re really set up with a corral, mobile slaughter is the way to go.

  3. elaine permalink
    November 13, 2015 9:43 pm

    Wonderful teaching post! Thank you 🙂

  4. November 14, 2015 4:44 am

    Piss ant o I love it…and so so accurate!!! Calves do so love to be piss anty!

    • November 14, 2015 5:13 am

      Liz, I have never seen one that isn’t ;P This one is all bull for sure, every time we go by with the tractor, he has to beller and broadside, cute now, but geez dairy bulls. So different than the beef.

  5. November 14, 2015 5:43 am

    Basic training makes life so much easier! Glad to see all are doing well.

    • November 14, 2015 5:46 am

      Fullcirclefarmstead, we are, the calf is a beauty, and Jane is in fine fettle. Hope all is well on your side of river. Beth and Erik are rocking it!! Congrats!

  6. Bee permalink
    November 14, 2015 5:48 am

    Firm and consistent… ain’t it the truth. Doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with calves, horses, puppies, kids or husbands, the strategy usually works:-) The current piss ant around here is the stud colt, who’s going on 17 months and thinks he’s THE BOSS. No matter that his mother, sister and I have repeatedly proven he isn’t, that testosterone gets him every time. We’re about to take care of that little problem, however…
    Speaking of horses, Nita, I keep forgetting to ask: do you use kelp and minerals free choice for horses that way you do with cows?

    • November 14, 2015 5:58 am

      Bee, yeah we’re about to have steers by afternoon…all the little brats will be a little more calm methinks.

      You know, we did (no horses now) but they sure don’t take in as much as the cows. The Belgians hardly ate any minerals, and my daughters quarterhorses seemed to like the salt and kelp the most.

  7. November 14, 2015 12:10 pm

    Excellent advice that will come in handy when we start getting livestock. In the meantime, food (or maybe I should say fodder) for thought…

  8. November 14, 2015 1:32 pm

    Thanks for this helpful post. Not that I’m planning on having calves, but it just re-enforces the animals you plan to work with, need to be trained to some degree.

    May I ask what plans you have for Raylan. It sounded like he became a steer recently, so not for breeding. I was wondering you couldn’t have bred him to one of your meat cattle, and got a hardier house cow. Or doesn’t it work like that? I know you want a heifer from Jane, so she can become your next house cow. But failing that happening, what is the plan?

    • November 14, 2015 4:05 pm

      Chris, I have several half Guernsey half Hereford cows, and they don’t give enough milk to be a house cow. I don’t want to keep a bull anymore, and since keeping a dairy bull is a whole lot different than keeping a beef bull, I don’t see that being even a remote possibility. What I should do, if I wanted to mess with it that much is breed one of the half dairy back to a full dairy and get a 3/4 dairy cow for a house cow. I actually think a dairy heifer raised on milk for 9 months, like Jane’s mom was would be hardy enough for me. Jane being a formula baby has had issues all along, much like people. Raylan will fill the freezer one day.

  9. mtnmedx permalink
    November 15, 2015 6:41 am

    So, how do you break bad habits of full grown cows? I have a Jersey that was allowed to run to the milking stall. The family called her in from the field and just made sure all kids and animals were out of her way as she plowed her way to the stantion. But I don’ t want her to run @ me now that we own her. How do I break that habit?

    • November 15, 2015 6:49 am

      Do you have a way to stop here before she gets to the stanchion? I make my cow wait. Try making a new routine for her that suits what you want, they learn fast, it usually takes 3 times to get Jane to come to a different gate and then it’s set in stone until the next time I need her to go through a different gate then I have to start over.

  10. mtnmedx permalink
    November 15, 2015 8:12 am

    Well, right now she runs toward me when she sees me coming. We have a dutch door between the pasture and the milking station so that keeps us separated but when I open that door she’s pushing and shoving to get to her place in the stantion.

    • mtnmedx permalink
      November 15, 2015 8:22 am

      (need to work on my spelling: stanchion)

    • November 15, 2015 10:24 am

      Ugh, maybe you could try just leading her to the stanchion, or not depending on if you feel safer if you could lead her. Or you can just deal with it. Like horses, or dogs, each cow seems to have their own set of idiosyncrasies that sometimes we have to learn to deal with. I know that isn’t much help, but your predicament reminds me of my Della (jane’s mom) who would swing her head twice a day at me when I went to tie her up, just a normal cow reaction to another cow, and I knew to grab her horn to block her, but I still after all these years expect Jane to do the same thing.

  11. mtnmedx permalink
    November 15, 2015 6:21 pm

    She’s a really sweet cow otherwise; great with the kids, great with other animals, easy to milk and lots of great milk. I just have to really watch her coming into the stanchion.

    Thanks for all your great information. I check I with Trapper Creek everyday with a cup of Joe before I start my own chores. 🙂

  12. Melissa York permalink
    November 16, 2015 10:43 am

    Thank you for taking the time to write up this post!

  13. Krista Lambert permalink
    April 10, 2016 6:40 pm

    Hi. I just pulled this post up as we unexpectedly have a bottle calf. Your training suggestions are very helpful. I just read the post to my husband and kids. Our new baby is one of our cow’s 2nd calf. Even after forcing her to feed him for a week, she refuses to allow him to nurse unless she is confined and we are standing over her. She kicks and butts him. We have no local access to raw milk (over an hour away). We started him on milk relacer and have been researching feeding calves. It seems most recommend calf starter. We do not feed our cattle anything but grass, hay and mineral/kelp/nutrabalancer supplement. Are you aware of any way to raise a calf on milk replacer without calf starter? We do not want to nutritionally deprive him of course but would prefer to avoid grain if there is an alternative. Thank you!

    • April 11, 2016 3:40 pm

      Krista, what a bummer, I have raised calves on milk replacer, going a longer with the bottle than recommended and then getting them onto grass. I have heard of the early calf starter feeding and I am not sure if I believe that they have to have it, other than a labor-saving device. Calves on dairies don’t get the benefit of many weeks of milk feedings and so I wonder it’s more of an industry standard type of deal than what is best for the calf, more likely it’s best for the bottom line to feed concentrates earlier and get off the bottle feeding. I fed my current milk cow on replacer until she was about 9 months old, I did give her a little grain though at about 6 months as we were getting into winter, but not high protein calf starter. Hope this helps.

      • Krista Lambert permalink
        April 11, 2016 6:49 pm

        It does help. We follow your blog and appreciate your thoughts. It is difficult to find advice for raising animals naturally. Thank you!

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