Calf Rearing with the Madre Method

By Phyllis & Paul Van Amburgh

Madre Method: the unencumbered suckling of a calf on its own biological dam from birth to the age of 10 months.

There are three main commonalities of all successful dairy farms: the first is farmers that read and research, second is a good mineral and feed program for cows and soils (or nutrition program, as it may be called when incorporated in a feed ration), and the third is a good heifer program. Farms that do a top-notch job raising their replacements have healthier cows that perform and thrive. These farms suffer far fewer problems with their cows than the ones who lack proper management or the ones who rely on purchased, unknown, young stock.

Eight years ago we began raising our replacement heifers one-to-one on their mother. We have tried numerous other methods, but found all fall short. Most dairy farmers dismiss the technique of cows raising their own calf. They fear a financial disaster if they don’t sell all the milk from all of their cows.

We have seen that a cow raising her own calf for an entire lactation, as nature designed, is by far the best method of raising calves; it produces the healthiest, strongest, most disease-resistant, most resilient cows. In our opinion it is the only way to raise calves in a grain-free herd. It is also by far the most economical method for raising young stock.


We will tackle the economics of this method first so that you can feel safe to consider the option. We have to believe that we won’t go out of business when we put the milk into a calf rather than into the tank.

We first need a little shift in perspective. Consider that on dairy farms today calves and young stock consume largely one of the following four feeds: co-mingled/bulk tank milk, milk replacer, grain or corn silage. Prior to these modern feeds, calves had been raised on their mothers for centuries, even for cows of domestic and commercial milk production. The shift to grain and other feeds to replace milk for young stock really began to take root around World War II, and even then it took decades to become universal. It is very important to understand that when this practice began in the industry, milk was a premium product and grain and other inputs were cheap. The shift was an economic decision and not meant to improve the rearing process. In fact, great lengths were taken to develop complex rations that were aimed at replacing the missing “perfect food.” If one reads the literature of the time, it is very clear that the decision to sell the milk and feed the calf the less expensive grains, etc., was a profit-driven motive.

heifer with newborn
Photo by Laura Joseph

As Merton Moore and E.M. Gildow, D.V.M. of the Carnation Milk Farms state in Developing a Profitable Dairy Herd, “In either the native or domestic state, calves are best started on mineral-rich milk from mineral-rich grasses. Nature intended that the frame and body structure be developed first on mother’s milk and grasses, then on grass alone … With all their richness in energy-building properties, grains are low in minerals so necessary to build a complete bone structure.”

Since 1953, the tables have turned. At that time milk brought a premium price, and the grains were much less expensive. Today, dairy farmers are paying high prices for grain (to purchase it as well as to grow it) and sell the milk at a price far less than parity. The feed ration for calves is expensive and milk averages at a break-even price. The dairy industry, especially the handlers and markets, increase their profits when farmers sell all of their milk, not when they use it as a resource for themselves to improve their stock. This creates pressure for farmers to produce high volumes of milk for the milk industry and to ship every drop.

If the milk leaves the farm then calves must be raised on some sort of replacement. Replacements are inferior, but this fact does not concern the majority of the dairy industry (haulers, marketers, markets or handlers), just the farmers. The other players are not in the cow business, they just want a lot of milk, and it is up to the farmers to figure out the rest. The idea that any food other than mother’s milk could be better for a calf is propaganda.

The rations dairy farmers feed calves today are expensive, and the care we give them is labor-intensive. Many of us use resources to collect and cool milk and then warm it again. Others use cash from selling milk to purchase milk replacer or to grow or purchase grain or corn. Feeding grain or milk replacer is easier to evaluate than letting the calf suckle because we can put it into traditional cash flow and balance sheets. Some farmers see a benefit of feeding real milk over other feedstuffs, and they feed their calves milk from the bulk tank or milk from high SCC cows. This is a sensible method because the milk that is fed is a resource we already have, not one we have to earn cash for in order to purchase. This makes it closer to a profitable model. However, we are still incurring the costs of harvesting the milk, cooling it, then warming it, and we are using labor to feed and care for the calves. If this milk never has to enter the “cost chain” of the milking and labor, such as in a nurse cow system, then we are even closer to optimizing the resource. If a cow nurses her own calf, the farmer is using his own resource to invest in his own future.

As for true costs, the cost of raising the cow/calf pair is about the same as the cost of feeding one cow in the milk line. So it is the profit from the lactation that is “spent” on the calf — it is the profit from one lactation that is diverted from our cash flow directly into the calf. The profit on one cow lactation equals the cost of letting a cow raise her calf. I guarantee that on any given farm the profit from one cow’s lactation is less than the out-of-pocket expenses it takes to raise a calf by hand for the first year.

The economic evaluation can’t stop here. The impact on cull rate for the herd is also a major factor in evaluating the economy of this method. The health and longevity of cows raised by this method are significant. Cull rate is a function of the number of lactations we get from our cows (i.e. two lactations means each cow must be replaced every two years, or half the herd a year or a 50 percent cull rate). The more lactations we get from our cows, the lower the cull rate. At our farm we have a cull rate of 4 percent. That means that for our 65-cow herd, we only need two heifers each year. We can easily afford to let two of the 65 cows raise their calf each year.


The economy of raising young stock with our Madre Method is important, but the real benefit to our profitability comes by way of the health, vigor and sheer quality that these replacements achieve.

Consider the benefits to the young calf. The rapid rate of gain is a big advantage for the calf raised by mother. The calves grow at 2 pounds per day in the first eight weeks or so and then skyrocket so that by the time they wean at 10 months the average daily gain is between 3 and 4 pounds per day. We achieve these results with no grain for cow or calf, only pasture, hay, balage and minerals. The weaned heifer or bull is usually about 60 percent of its mature body weight with stores of fat that will be a savings account of health for the rest of its life. It works like this: the milk contains concentrated amounts of vitamins, minerals and other compounds for the optimal health of the calf; the calf grows fat to store these compounds (especially the minerals because they are fat-soluble), and they remain ready for use in the fat stores as the calf matures. It is those compounds, stored in the fat, that are used to heal, provide energy and to supply whatever is needed in times of stress, e.g. compromised nutritional intake because the feed was cut a little late or it was a wet spring.

calf nursing
The heifers raised on the Madre Method grow to be cows with strength, stamina, disease and infection resistance and fertility.

It is the fat stores that pull the cow through any rough period. The more fat the calf gains when it is little, the healthier and stronger it will be. Incidentally, there are some critics that warn against this method because they say that it produces “fat in the udder” and thus reduces subsequent milk yield. As the heifer grows, and especially after about four months drinking from her mother, she will develop a very chubby-looking udder due to the oxytocin in her bloodstream that she is ingesting via her mother’s milk. This is not fat; it is an active hormone system at work. Once the heifer is weaned, the young udder shrinks and eventually grows to be perfectly “normal,” as does the rest of her body type and general conformation, despite her paunch-ish beginning.

The heifers raised on the Madre Method grow to be cows with strength, stamina, disease and infection resistance and fertility. The oldest cow we have that was raised by her mother is 8 years old this May. She has given us six heifers and a bull, she maintains a low SCC, and she has never had a case of mastitis or any other health issues. She also looks half her age and shows no signs of slowing down. The same is true for the health of the ones raised Madre that have followed. We are very pleased with the level of performance our cows maintain. Our cows walk up to 2 miles a day, they breed back in less than 30 days, they produce about 9,000 pounds of milk and maintain a body score of 3-4 year-round on a ration of pasture and minerals in summer and balage and hay with minerals in winter. They also spend all their time outside, year-round, except on the coldest winter days and nights.

We have selected for these performance traits in our breeding program, and we are good managers, but even these skills cannot replace a healthy start. We understand that profit is made by optimizing each aspect of our farm operation and that healthy, strong cows perform better and are more reliable than ones that we must coddle. We have compared the vigor of cows raised by their mother to their relatives that were not, and we are convinced time and again that it is a major performance-influencing factor.

Genetic Expression

In order to achieve the best performance from our cows we need them to be healthy and strong. The genetic makeup of our cows has much to do with their potential but not all. The expression of traits relies on two factors: genetics and epigenetics. Genetics is not all “hard wired” or simply a result of the genes we get. In other words, how we function depends on genes and environment (things like management, nutrition, stress, weather, etc.). Epigenetics looks at the ways outside factors influence the way genes express, or “what you see.”

Most dairy farmers are breeding their cows to possess the traits they will need to bring profit to the farm. Epigenetics considers all of the factors that affect the expression and function of genes in human, animal and even plant life. Even though a heifer may have the genetic potential to produce a lot of high-butterfat milk, there may be conditions such as the weather, poor feed, etc. that prevent her from doing so. There are often permanent effects, like the heifer that “never really grew right” because she was set back as a calf. It is a new science and only partially understood. Some of the research has discovered tiny little meta-genes between the genes. Genetic researchers and some folks studying GMOs have called everything they don’t understand “genetic trash,” because they don’t have any idea of its function. You can be sure it is not “trash.” This oversimplified view of cattle genetics has compromised our breeding programs.

An animal will only fully express its genetic potential when the previous four generations have encountered optimum conditions such as good minerals, feed, water, suitable environment and have been exposed to manageable stress (allostasis). A high plane of nutrition is key to reaching our breeding goals. Cattlemen invest thousands of dollars in the best breeding stock and semen and then wean early, don’t feed high-quality feed or skimp on the mineral program.

white cow and calf
The genetic makeup of our cows has much to do with their potential but not all.

By its very nature, modern agriculture has left us all with depleted resources, namely low soil organic matter and mineral imbalances in soils, forages and crops. Our management practices must be aimed at remediating these deficiencies. This is a whole separate topic in itself, but we must take this into account.

We must give our cattle the best management through the whole process. If you want the best stock that you are capable of having, you must understand epigenetics. You must also understand how nutrition plays a major role in the epigenetics of our young stock. A cow makes milk that is specifically designed for the calf she has just birthed, and the profile of that milk changes for the calf as it grows. Raising the calves on their mother gives us a huge leg up in capturing the full genetic potential of our animals.

Once you have a barn full of animals that are performing to their highest potential, the selection process becomes easy. When there are no excuses for poor production we can select based on genes and performance. If we know that what we see is the true expression of the genetic makeup, cultivated with care, then we can cull out the problems. This is when the breeding program really gains speed and herd improvement gets going. Now the final benefit of full genetic expression and sound breeding decisions is added to the benefits of the Madre Method, and the sky is the limit.


The techniques for the Madre Method are variable, according to each farm setup, but the basic methods and goals are universal.

It is best if you can be present when the calf is born so that you can make sure it is able to nurse right away. It may need help. Dairy cows are not the same as beef cows, no matter who tells you that they are. Often dairy cows are low in energy after calving due to their propensity for making large volumes of milk and the associated metabolic demands. The calf is often a little low on energy as well, as a consequence. Give the mother and calf a few minutes to adjust, but be ready to help the calf stand and nurse within about 20 minutes. There is a side benefit to helping the calf nurse because the cow will smell you along with her calf, and adopt you too, giving you her milk readily when you milk her. The calf should get some good suckling in, but may need to take a break after only a few minutes.

There is no need to try to get the calf to suckle a full gallon or even quart of colostrum right away if this first round of suckling is very difficult. Of course a gallon right away is best, but the calf will have several opportunities to nurse in small amounts the first day. It is absolutely amazing to see the power of a small amount of colostrum nursed directly from the cow versus a much larger quantity administered by bottle. The calf will gain much strength by nursing small amounts in the first hours.

Once the calf gets the idea, it can usually be left alone with the cow until the next milking time arrives. It is best to isolate the cow/calf pair together away from the rest of the herd between milking for at least one day; three to five is even better. This will create a good strong bond between the two that will be very important at weaning time. Here again is a difference between beef and dairy cows: calves cross suck much more readily in a dairy herd. Dairy cows are trained to let “anyone” take their milk, and there is so much milk around that the calves will often go to any cow. If the calf is allowed to only suckle from its mother for the first week, there is usually no need to keep a close watch after that.

cow with suckling calf
Some cows are natural mothers and will stick close to their calves, urging them to suckle and others need some encouragement. They all come around eventually.

The cow and calf can become part of the milking group as early as you decide, depending on the logistics of trying to facilitate the bond. Ours usually begin running with the milk herd after the first 24 hours and sometimes as early as the first 12 hours after birth. At this time the calf runs with its mother day and night and has free access to her milk. At milking time, we milk the mother cow as we do all the others, taking whatever milk the calf has not drunk. We have a tie stall, so during the grazing season the calf comes in and out with the herd and usually rests in front of its mother or down at the end of the barn while we milk. If there are a few calves, they seem to like to lie down together somewhere until the cows are turned out again after milking. In other barns, some calves group together in an open stall of the free-stall while the mothers go through the parlor to be milked.

If the calf is born in the winter and the cows are in the tie stall for the day or over night because of winter weather, we tie the calf next to her mother for a week or so, then in a calf area, bringing her over to suckle before each milking or whenever we get a chance. Whenever the cows are turned out the calves go too.

During this time the calf is learning the milking routine, listening to the noises, learning to come in and out of the barn and learning to be tied in temporarily. This exposure makes training the heifers to milking much easier later on when they freshen.

As the calf grows there is gradually less milk from the mothers for the tank. Many times the calf will start out on only one teat, and then move to two, then three and finally four. I just take what is there. The only exception is that if I notice that a calf has not had a chance for its meal before milking, I will leave some milk for the calf to suckle after milking. An empty udder will encourage a hungry calf to seek milk from another cow, so I either bring the calf over to drink before I milk the mother, or I leave enough milk in the udder for the calf. It is very important that the calf get priority for the milk.

It works best to breed the mother cow back while she is still in the milking group, in the first eight to 12 weeks after calving. This is especially true if there is a bull breeding the cows because he will also breed a young heifer (as young as 5 months) if she is there.

At somewhere between 8 and 12 weeks old, depending on the production of the mother cow, the mother/ calf pair will be ready to move to pasture full time, or some other place that doesn’t require travel in and out of the milking regime. We put the pairs in their own group, or with dry cows and beef cows, out to pasture. The cow/calf pairs can then be managed as you would a nurse cow group or a dry cow group (however, the feed should be appropriate for cows that are lactating).

Any shortcomings in feed, weather, water, etc., will come out of the cows first, before the calves. The calves will suckle and demand the milk they need if the feed is inadequate, or the water is lacking, or it is too hot to graze. Be careful to keep the group well cared for or the cows will suffer. If poor conditions persist, the calves will suffer too.

The mother cow will do the rest of the job until weaning time. She will coax her calf to eat, teach her which plants to graze and countless other things. Weaning should come at a minimum of 8½ months, 10 months is best. The cells of the mammary gland grow four times faster than any other cells of the body in the young heifer between 6 and 10 months of age. We feel that continuing the optimal nutrition from mother’s milk should be maintained through this period. At 10 months it should be easy and stress-free to separate the cows from the young heifers. The initial bonding effort pays off at weaning because for the heifers that only nurse from their mother, once the mother goes away the young one just stops nursing. With that in mind, it is still a good idea not to put the weaned heifers in with dry cows right away (especially if the calves may have been cross sucking) as it may be too tempting to just go to the dry cows for a meal. So if the cow/calf group has the dry cows in it as well, it is best to remove the heifers rather than the cows.

As for heifers sucking on each other, we have yet to have this happen in our Madre system. We did lose some quarters to calves sucking on each other when we used to bottle feed, but have not had any cases since using the Madre Method. The heifers only suck to obtain milk, and not out of boredom or want of sucking. If there is no milk to drink, they don’t seem interested.

Once the heifers are weaned, the cow will be ready for her eight-week dry period before calving again, and the heifer will be ready to breed in three to five months.

The authors would like to thank dear friend and mentor, Gearld Fry, for encouraging them to develop this method and for the years of his loving wisdom and support.

Phyllis and Paul Van Amburgh run their 100 percent grass-fed dairy and beef farm with their five children, Grace, Vincent, Maggy, Oliver and Ruby in Sharon Springs, New York. The milk from their 65-cow dairy goes to Maple Hill Creamery and Horizon Organic. They are honored to announce that Dharma Lea has been selected as the Savory Institute Northeast USA Hub (“SI Northeast”) beginning in 2015, offering learning tools, seminars, demonstrations, workshops and courses to better assist farms in our Northeast region to reach their Holistic goals. They can be reached at

This article appears in the September 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Calves: Rearing Them Right

By Stephen Roberts

Tips for rearing calves from former New Zealand dairy farmer, agricultural consultant, and all-round farming legend Vaughan Jones, interviewed by Stephen Roberts.

Vaughan, let’s talk first about the financial impact of correct calf rearing.

Correctly-reared calves continue to grow at a faster rate after weaning than poorly-reared ones
Correctly-reared calves continue to grow at a faster rate after weaning than poorly-reared ones.

If you are too busy, unsure about calf rearing, or don’t have the proper facilities, then forget it and buy weaners. Sometimes it is more profitable to buy yearlings, which often sell cheaply.

Calf rearing is a specialty job requiring specific knowledge. Correctly-reared calves continue to grow at a faster rate after weaning than poorly-reared ones, and the eventual size of adult animals relates to their weaning weight. It’s the farmer’s knowledge of this that encourages the high bidding at calf sales for well-reared ones.

How important is managing cow nutrition prior to calving?

Successful calf rearing starts before calving, with the dams not being too thin or too fat, on a rising plane of nutrition from drying off to calving. Calves can die within the first month of being born due to mineral deficiencies in the dams before birth. Deficiencies can be caused by insufficient feed for the dam or poor quality feed that lacks necessary minerals, especially selenium, copper, and iodine.

When dry cows are on maintenance diets of 15 to 20 pounds of pasture dry matter per cow per day, they receive around 0.003 ounces of copper (Cu) per day. They really need about 10 times that amount to build up their levels and those in the calves’ livers. Perform liver tests and if necessary supplement with copper or whatever is required. There is very little copper in milk, so newborn calves don’t get much until they start eating solids. For this reason, calves also benefit when given a good soluble mineral mix.

When is the best time to remove the calf from the dam?

First you have to decide if you’re going to rear the calves artificially. If so, when possible, remove the calf from the cow within 12 hours of birth and place it in a warm building before it can form an attachment. It should have been well-fed, so leave it for 12 hours without anything to drink and then train it to suck from a warmed teat. If it has not drunk, give it about half a gallon of colostrum immediately.

newborn calf
When is the best time to remove the calf from the dam?

The alternative is rearing calves on cows. Cows usually identify calves by smell, so put a little molasses on the noses of the cow and calf. Attaching collars to the cow’s calf and one other, held together by a rope or chain about two feet long helps avoid cows favoring their calf. When settled, do the same to another two or three calves and wean the best ones at seven to eight weeks. After weaning, the once-bred heifers can be finished and sold for slaughter before they are downgraded to meat quality.

Calves grow better when grazed without their dams on slightly less and/or poorer pastures, partly because the dams select the best forage, competing with the calves.

Another way is to select the same cows each year to rear the calves, drafting them into a pen at each milking and letting the calves in to suck — initially twice a day, then once a day after all calves are three weeks old.

Check all calves to ensure that they are getting enough milk. The cows you chose must be ones that don’t fret all day while kept in a small enough pen so they don’t kick the calves and will let their milk down to machines after weaning. With this system there is no bonding or favoring. Be sure to check every few days for mastitis. The farm must be such that the calves can graze completely away from the cows, during feeding and after weaning, for several months or up to a year if pos­sible. Otherwise sucking from any cow in sight can occur.

In addition to being calmer, do older cows produce better colostrum than first calvers?

Yes. Also, colostrum on the first day of calving is the highest quality. High producers’ colostrum will not be as concentrated. I advise feeding cows ad­equately all their lives on minerally-bal­anced pastures and adding a top quality soluble mineral mix to their water.

Calves and Nutrition

I know you are very passionate about nutrition. What are your recommendations on minerals?

Calves do much better when supple­mented with minerals, so after the first week add dissolved mineral mix to the milk at 0.07 ounces per calf or 0.006 percent of the liveweight per calf. I’ve not seen or heard of calf feed that has sufficient minerals, so minerals have to make up the difference and result in better calves for little extra cost — there is less pasture eaten, faster growth, and better health, with less future drenching for internal parasites.

cows identify calves by smell
Cows identify calves by smell.

Signs of malnutri­tion from insufficient minerals include brown patches (on Holsteins) from lack of copper, hair on crests from lack of zinc, rough hair from lack of sodium, sad or starry eyes from low magnesium, swollen glands on the side of the jaw from lack of iodine, and weak muscles from low selenium.

Calf muscle tissue development needs protein and limited fat. A high-quality, palatable, powder-based milk replacement can be fed after colos­trum has been fed for at least the first few days, but preferably feed colostrum as long as possible.

Milk replacers should have about 25 percent protein and 20 percent fat and should be fed after about four days. Bought feed should have protein of about 20 percent, fat at 4 percent, a max­imum of 6 percent fiber, and an energy rating of 12.5 MJ per kg of dry matter. This energy rating compares with a very high-quality grass and clover pasture.

What special water requirements do calves have?

Potable water must always be avail­able to calves. Clean the water troughs regularly and clean the troughs in pad­docks each time before calves go in until they are at least six months old. All water troughs on farms should be kept clean to avoid infection and to encour­age animals to drink more. If they don’t drink as much as they should, they will eat less, which will slow their growth.

One frequently sees calves reared on long, lodging, stemmy, trampled pasture, which they don’t like and so don’t eat. What’s the answer?

If special calf paddocks are used, have cattle chew the calf paddocks down monthly to remove the soiled, trampled grass and to freshen the pas­ture, making it more palatable and spreading the rumen microflora. Top quality hay from the first week is also important. Good, short, green-colored hay with a high clover content encour­ages consumption, rumen development, and calf growth; bad hay or straw won’t. Calves benefit from good hay: lucerne, clover, or grass hay that has not seeded, in that order until three months old. Young animals are born with no rumen bacteria and must get it from older ani­mals, preferably by grazing in a rotation with them.

Those pastures should have the op­timal levels of trace elements necessary for good animal health.

Do calves have a preference for grass type?

Calves’ first preference is short, 15 cm leafy pasture and all grasses other than ryegrass, assuming the grasses are all the same length. Many perennial ryegrasses are high-endophyte and thus unpalatable. If possible, sow endophyte-safe grasses on the entire farm, but especially in calf paddocks. Current research shows that Bealey with NEA2, which is a safe, palatable endophyte, is the best by far in yield, handling droughts and animal preference, but it must be fed and handled correctly. Avoid grazing paddocks that have re­cently had effluent spread on them; they can have higher parasite numbers and taste foul to calves that are fussy eaters.

Calves and Disease Prevention

Changing the subject, what is the best way to avoid scours?

As in everything, prevention is bet­ter than cure, so use preventive prac­tices. For example, don’t overfeed, and avoid excessive use of antibiotics or sulfa drugs as a form of control. Doing so is against world human food health requirements and can lead to antibiotic resistance in the animals and consum­ers of their meat. Most calf rearers find it cheaper and more profitable to spend 10 minutes a day on cleanliness and spraying with a good fungicide-disin­fectant than to have to treat scouring calves.

Calves in pasture
As in everything, prevention is bet­ter than cure, so use preventive prac­tices.

If you do have scours on your calves, feed bentonite, which aids digestion. It also allows more milk to be fed in the early stages of life for faster growth with less over-feeding scours. Other solutions include 0.1 ounces of vitamin C per day and rennet products, which aid digestion.

With regard to pastures, change paddocks. This is easier with beef than with dairying, where calves are usually close to the farm dairy. Graze calf pad­docks short with other types of animals or older similar animals to remove parasite havens and soiled pasture so the sun can get to the base.

Any other tips for the calf rearers out there?”

First decide how many calves you will rear. Plan the building and manure disposal system — buildings must be able to be opened on the sunny side. Calves reared in dry, sheltered condi­tions grow 30 percent faster than those in wet, cold situations. Calves need protection from cold winds and rain because they have a high skin-to-body weight and little body insulation. Low-cost calf covers could be good value for winter-born calves in cold areas, un­less well-sheltered. A client on a high-altitude farm near the center of New Zealand’s North Island asked me about buying covers to stop his one-month-old Holstein bull calves from shivering in frosty weather. I suggested he give them soluble mineral mix at 0.006 percent of live body weight in the milk or in warm water immediately after their milk. The shivering stopped in three days, making covers unnecessary, and the calves grew much better.

This article appeared in the June 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Stephen Roberts is a journalist in New Zealand. For more information on Vaughan Jones, visit

Weaning Dairy Cows on Pasture

By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.

It is common knowledge that cows grazing well-managed pastures will have dramatically fewer general health problems, and especially less digestion problems since they are eating what they were created to eat. The key to fewer health problems, of course, is well-managed pastures. Yet young stock, those around the time of weaning and then placed out on pasture, are a slightly different story. As everyone is well aware, young stock six months of age and older must also be eating at least 30 percent dry matter on average from pasture during the entire grazing season. We thus need to balance the environment and nutri­tion of these more delicate animals before being placed on pasture so they do not succumb to common problems that adult animals tend to fend off better.

A lot depends on how strong the calves are as they are weaned and shortly thereafter. Weaning time is extremely stressful for the calves, regardless of how they were given milk: from an individual bottle in a hutch or if they have been running freely with nurse cows. Weaning may be more stressful to calves having been on nurse cows, but those calves tend to be more robust as well. There are good points and bad points to everything.

Unlike drying off a cow abruptly to get the best results by stopping the brain’s signal to make milk, weaning should be done as gradually as possible to avoid stressing calves, especially upsetting their digestion. Prior to weaning, your calves should already be eating all the kinds of feed that they soon will be completely reliant on. They should already be used to the forage and grain. Their rumens are functional prior to weaning time, and having forage as part of the feeding routine en­hances health of the rumen by keeping a fiber mat for the calves to chew cud, which provides saliva and sodium bicarbonate to help keep the rumen pH at about 6.8, where it should be for the best internal environment for the microbes that live in there. A healthy mat of fiber in the rumen also helps to slow down the rate of passage of feed in general.

The biological signal for peak milk production of dairy cows starts to decrease at two to three months into lactation. Once the calves reach three months of age or older they need less milk and rely mainly on solid food.
The biological signal for peak milk production of dairy cows starts to decrease at two to three months into lactation. Once the calves reach three months of age or older they need less milk and rely mainly on solid food.

Calves fed only grain and milk as pre-weaned animals (a feeding method conjured up by academic research in the 1990s and most likely funded by grain company money) tend to have more digestive upsets and may even experience rumen acidosis, which can affect their ankles and hooves for the rest of their lives (see this by strong pink areas at the ankle). This is a terrible condition at any age but even worse in an animal so young.

Another stress to calves is dehorning/disbudding. Hopefully every­one is now using the portable burners on a regular, periodic basis for different sets of growing calves and not using choppers as a caveman would use on older calves. Using a burner is much, much less stress­ful than the choppers and also leaves no blood at all, which reduces the attraction for flies and their wiggling, burrowing maggot offspring that can inhabit the chopped site. Make sure when burning that there is a copper-colored ring at the base of the horn bud, usually after seen about five to ten seconds when the burner is good and hot. Do not flick off the now dead horn cap, it will fall off over a couple weeks time. If you do force it off, it could cause bleeding. Still, disbudding even with a burner is stressful and should be done well before weaning, ideally at about one to two months old, and with lidocaine for anesthesia. This of course means you are not weaning until three months old. Do not dehorn (by any method) at the time of weaning or shortly thereafter. Always give a good solid week before weaning. I’ve seen too many instances when calves are weaned and dehorned during crummy damp weather and the stressed animals come down with pneumonia.

It’s not rocket-science to realize that a cow’s milk is meant for her offspring calf. The biological signal for peak milk production of dairy cows starts to decrease at two to three months into lactation. Once the calves reach three months of age or older they need less milk and rely mainly on solid food. Calves will naturally be stronger the longer they are on milk, which will translate into animals that can weather the common problems that occur when they are weaned and put on pas­ture. But with the current grazing requirements for animals six months of age and older, you now have to tend to this group of animals in regards to pasture management almost as closely as your milking cows. ­

IT’S NOT ROCKET-SCIENCE TO REALIZE THAT A COW’S MILK IS MEANT FOR HER OFFSPRING CALF. The biological signal for peak milk production of dairy cows starts to decrease at two to three months into lactation.

— Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D., Four-Seasons Organic Cow Care

By rearing a healthy, robust calf, underlying problems such as low levels of parasites en­countered on pasture will not be quite as much of an issue. You need to be aware that as you put calves out on pasture in the summer, there are stom­ach worm larvae waiting there to meet them from the last season if young stock were out there the last grazing season. As the warmth and humidity of spring and summer go on, the stomach worm larvae population will increase dramatically, so you really need to make sure that calves are receiving proper levels of energy, protein and minerals for their immune systems to mature quickly enough while the animals are en­countering these pests for the first time. A young local farmer had a fantastic idea of putting the young animals on the pasture for a few days and then take them away for about a month, and then put them on it for real. Without realizing it, the young farmer was applying a concept of vaccination in a very natural way: expose an animal to a low amount of challenge, withdraw for three weeks for the immune system to process the incoming information, and then reexpose the animal to trigger the immune system to the fullest.

If calves born in February through April and weaned three months later are sent out back to the same paddock where such groups of ani­mals always go, they will quickly become infested with internal stom­ach worms since they have no natural immunity to them. Typical signs of infestation include pot-bellied calves with obvious angularity to ob­servable bones, a rough-looking and reddish-black coat, with diarrhea and dried manure on thin back legs. Animals in the age group between one month after weaning up to about ten to twelve months old are the most likely to become infested. Once past this age, they tend to have enough wherewithal to build a solid, natural immunity that will be with them for life. See chapter 10 for more information on parasites.

If any part of their nutritional needs is not met, however, even the best calves will start to look worse and worse over the course of the pasture season. I have seen this occur way too often over the years. But to be fair I have also seen really nice calves their first season on pasture, if they are fed properly and the pasture is managed such that it is not a wasteland of rank forage growth with more weeds than actual forage.

Source: Four-Seasons Organic Cow Care

Why Clean Pastures are Important for Calves

By Hugh J. Karreman, V.M.D.

Okay, let’s start to talk about calves on pasture. First, always try to have calves on “clean” pasture. Clean means that adult cows haven’t been on it for a couple years, and neither have other calves. This is very difficult to do in practice on farms with a small land base. Therefore, at the very least do not fol­low adult cows immediately with younger animals as this not only increases parasite pressure on the young stock but also increase likelihood of Johne’s transmission to the young stock if adults are carrying the germs that cause Johne’s disease.

Many people will clip pastures in order to splatter out manure pies so the parasites dry up in the sun and wind, as well as to give a uniform regrowth of the paddock as mentioned previ­ously. If you do not like to clip pasture, then I would suggest that you have poultry and hogs to peck and root through the manure pies, which they absolutely will do. You could also fol­low with sheep or goats, as most internal parasites are species specific.

A healthy paddock for a cow.
A healthy paddock for a cow.

Grazing horses or mules right after cows have been in a pasture will “mow” the pasture down to an even height quite quickly, even right up close to manure paddies. But make sure that the horses or mules are taken out of that pasture strip af­ter twelve hours or they will quickly graze it down to the bare earth thanks to their having both lower and upper front teeth.

However, horses and mules will not destroy the existing cow pies like clipping or having poultry or hogs rooting through them would. Still try to use only clean pasture for calves, but if really tight on land consider the above recommendations.

Source: Four-Seasons Cattle Care

Troubleshooting Problems During Calving

By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.

Here are some tips for common issues that occur during calving:

Do you feel only two hooves when reaching in? If the bottom of the hooves are facing down, you are probably feeling the front ones; the bottoms of back hooves usually face upwards towards the sky. If you feel front legs and no head, don’t pull without first knowing where the head is. Never, ever pull out a frontwards facing calf without knowing and/or guiding the head to come straight out along with the legs. Always, always, always make sure the head is coming through the cervix while pulling on the legs. I rely quite often on my head snare/loop to make sure the head isn’t turning back. If the head is still in the uterus and the legs are being pulled, the head often will turn if the nose is not directed into the cervical tunnel. This is especially true if the calf is dead already.

If you feel the tail with the two hooves, the calf is backward and you can go ahead and pull. Backwards calves are technically normal except that the umbilical cord tends to snap earlier while the calf ’s head is still in the uterus, which leads to the calf drowning in the uterine fluids. If you only feel the tail, it is a breech birth and needs veterinary attention. A cow will never be able to calve-in a breech birth on her own, never. If you feel one leg “turned back” (with the hoof going towards the cow’s head, carefully cup your hand over the hoof and bend the leg the way it naturally wants to bend. Bring the hoof close in towards the calf ’s belly and then bring the hoof toward you. Always cup the hoof in the palm of your hand to avoid unnecessary rips to the uterus. A rip in the uterus is generally fatal, even with antibiotics. Always have the cow standing (if you can) when you go to rearrange limbs—it is much easier to rear­range limbs with the cow standing. If the cow is lying down, the floor is blocking a potential area of movement. Standing up while working on a standing cow is also nicer than kneeling in damp bedding.

It is not too difficult to rearrange a leg that is turned back, but you have to reach in the cow first to find the problem. If you do not reach in, you will not know what is happening and be unable to make a rational decision about the situation at hand. Never hesitate to call a veterinarian when it comes to calving questions. I have helped many farmers with calving questions over the phone when they call and de­scribe what they are feeling inside the cow. While not always success­ful in helping them out over the phone, it has reduced some driving out to farms late at night, much to the appreciation of the farmer.

Once the calf ’s head and front legs are out of the cow to the “armpits” of the calf, stop everything for a moment. Cross the front legs of the calf and turn the calf slightly so that it will be delivered with its back­bone eleven o’clock or one o’clock to the cow’s backbone. Doing this is incredibly important in preventing hip lock. Hip lock is when the calf ’s hips become stuck during calving and only a very forceful extraction can free it up to come fully out. Cross the front legs of a few calves be­ing born for a few calvings and you’ll agree that the calvings go easier. The pelvic outlet is shaped like an upside-down egg, and the calf ’s hook bones will pass out much easier if the calf is slightly turned. It will save many a cow from a pinched nerve and being down, especially first-calf heifers which are naturally smaller animals than more mature cows.

A calf and cow after birth in a farmer’s barn.

Once delivered, take the calf by the back legs and swing it around 360 degrees a few times (until you get dizzy). Or lay the calf on the cow’s back with the calf ’s nose low to the ground. These two methods allow any fluids that it might have sucked in while still inside the cow to drain out of the calf’s windpipe or throat.

Always check for a twin, especially if the calf is somewhat small or the cow is early by a week or two.

After you give the cow five to ten gallons of lukewarm water, which a normal cow will suck right down, get the cow to stand up. This is to check to see if she can indeed stand up (as she should be able to) and can help prevent a prolapsed uterus as the uterus will hang down in­side the belly better when she is standing rather than possibly flopping out of a lying down cow—especially if her rump is facing downhill.

If a cow looks like she is straining to calf and is not advancing at all for about two to three hours, she may have a twisted uterus/ uterine torsion. Uterine torsions are extremely common—especially in the Holstein breed. There might be trouble if you notice that the cow has its tail out, not resting upon itself like normal, and the cow shows some pushing but no progress. Wash her up and reach in with an OB sleeve and lube. If you feel a turning or auger-like feeling as you reach through the cervix for the calf, there is a good chance there is a torsion present. By carefully feeling with your fingertips along the floor and walls of the birth canal and into the cervix, you will notice a turning, corkscrew-like effect as the birth canal tightens down. Usually farmers will say that the calf feels like it is really “far in” before they can reach it. Call for assistance, as a cow will never be able to calve on her own with a twisted uterus. The longer you wait, the lower your chance of having a live calf. Do not wait and see. Live calves are a very com­mon ending to a corrected uterine torsion. If the calf is alive prior to correction of the uterine torsion, it will likely be born alive once the torsion is corrected. If it is already dead before correcting the uterine torsion, it will need to be extracted right after the correction as the cervix will start to close down.

If you reach in the first moment you suspect a problem and call for help in time there will be a better outcome. Correcting a uterine torsion is actually kind of fun for me as a veterinarian. There are a few ways to correct a uterine torsion, and all are very manual. The first step is to determine which direction the torsion is going. You don’t need to know “left or right” or “clockwise or counterclockwise”; simply reach your hand and arm inside the birth canal and literally feel which way the auger-like corkscrew turning is going. Once you do, you will need to “cast the cow” down onto the ground and roll her the direc­tion the twist is going (the direction you felt when reaching in her). Roll her over her back in that di­rection. You will need two people minimum—one person rolling her front half and the second person rolling her back legs (be careful, but they often give up once being rolled). It is ideal to have a third person, usually the veterinarian, sit on the cow’s belly just in front of the udder to keep the calf in place while the cow is rolled to correct the torsion. Once rolled, stand the cow back up, clean her vulva up as needed and reach in. Often times, with just one roll, the auger-like feel will be gone and there is a direct open path for the calf to come out. Sometimes the rolling needs to be done a few times. It is important to stand the cow up after each roll and reach in to check if the torsion has been corrected. If only two people are rolling the cow, the rolling itself should be done in a quick motion for the best results. Granted, my preferred method is when I can flip the calf over with my forearm inside the uterus of a standing cow and thereby correct the torsion. But this takes some practice at becoming proficient, whereas rolling a cow is a tried and true method.

Source: Four-Seasons Cattle Care

How to Prepare a Calving Area

By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.

Cows should be allowed to separate themselves from the group when calving is obviously imminent. If you see a cow that is just beginning to show signs of calving, do not move her to some other area if you can avoid it. Doing so can delay calving twelve hours (resulting possibly in a dead calf being born) as the cow will stop the calving process to reorient herself to her new surroundings.

Finding comfortable areas for spring calving can be difficult with frozen ground. Photo by Hubert Karreman.

I know some folks will have more than one cow a day freshening, but that is no excuse not to provide a clean area for calving. Calving outdoors on clean, green grass is ideal, weather permitting. An indoor calving area must at least be dry with a lot of new straw or fodder. Box stalls are not ideal, but also not impossible. When cleaning out the box stall between calvings, lay down a thick coating of lime (Barn-Dri or Barn-Grip) to alter the ground pH and fatally upset the bacterial habitat.

I realize that not all box stalls get cleaned out between calvings (although they should!), but spongy bedding is a recipe for health disasters in both cow and calf. The best kind of bedding is straw or fodder. Sand is ideal, but it’s not available in all areas. Chopped paper sticks to everything that is wet, and sawdust can harbor coliform bugs that can enter a leaking teat when the cow is lying down. Calving in filth is not smart. Wet, mucky filth coming in contact with a dripping udder spells trouble for the cow as well as likely disease for the newborn calf (navel infection and/or intestinal diseases like coliform, salmonella, and Johne’s). If possible, dip the calf ’s navel in iodine a couple times a day for the first few days (just like a baby), so it quickly dries up nice and crisp. I realize the cow may lick it off, but its antiseptic upon contact far outweighs the potential health problems that crop up from navel infections (i.e., joint ill giving a swollen joint or joints) that are near impossible to clear up. Lay down lime and bed well between cows that are calving. Of course fresh green pasture is great—but there won’t be any in early spring! It is either frozen or mud. Harsh, winter winds or raw, chilly air will diminish a newborn calf ’s chance to thrive.

Calf jackets are great for any wet/damp calf born outside that is weak.

I realize that many of these instructions are easier said than done, but in early spring the weather and ground can be very cold and damp, so consideration must be given to what is in the best interest of both cow and calf if you are making your living as a dairy farmer. Remember that calving time is the most stressful for the cow and is obviously of critical importance to the start of the newborn calf.

Source: Four-Seasons Organic Cow Care

Care Tips for Leading Up to Calving & Freshening

By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.

One of the most sensitive times in a cow’s life is in the last couple weeks leading up to calving, when the body’s natural hormones are rapidly changing in preparation to deliver the newborn. For the dairy farmer, this of course means paying close attention to detail in the last two weeks before freshening, as well as observing proper calving procedures. If all goes well, a cow should calve on her own, drink five to fifteen gallons of water, get up, pass the placenta within four to six hours, start eating, and begin lactation. To have cows hit a decent peak and maintain persistence during lactation, good feeding and body con­dition is extremely important.

So we should think about the cow’s health prior to actually calving. Always have the animal at the farm where she is going to calve for the three weeks prior to actual calving. Do not transport her right around calving time. Her immune system isn’t very effective at this time to begin with, due to the internal stresses and hormones normally as­sociated with calving, and the strain of transport only makes matters worse. I have seen way too many cows become critically ill when they are bought right at freshening time from a sales stable, and/or they ac­tually calve-in on a cattle hauling truck. At three weeks before calving, we still have time to influence the cow’s immune system in a positive way, as indicated by the history of the farm. At this time you want to have the cow where she will be calving so that she will make the cor­rect antibodies for her colostrum.

Colostrum can be positively affected by appropriate use of vaccina­tion, if needed. Any vaccinations that you would like the calf to benefit from can be given to cows two to three weeks before freshening. You may want to vaccinate a cow with a coliform vaccine at this time in order to protect her from getting coliform mastitis when she is just fresh and, secondarily, to enrich the colostrum to protect the calf from deadly coliform scours in its first few weeks of life. If either of these two conditions occurs with some regularity on your farm, seriously consider vaccinating with J-5 or ScourGuard 4KC. If using these two specific products, you must also vaccinate the cow some three to four weeks earlier if it is the first time using it (like a few days prior to drying off). Annual boosters are also effective. For first-calf heifers (whose colostrum is never as enriched with antibodies as a mature cow), consider using a rota/corona vaccine or First Defense, a source of antibodies that can be given orally to newborns if scours in calves always seems to be a problem.

It’s also a good time to give MuSe (vitamin E and selenium), which has been scientifically shown to increase immune function, lower so­matic cell count when fresh, increase fertility in the coming lactation, and reduce incidence of retained placenta. Retained placentas will un­fortunately happen with hard calvings, twins, early calvings, and hy­pocalcemic (milk fever) cows even if you use MuSe beforehand, but if retained placentas are occurring other than at these times with any regularity, definitely check your selenium levels or simply use an injec­tion of MuSe. These are cheap methods of insurance compared to the costs of lost production and vet bills associated with coliform mastitis treatment or retained placenta/metritis with a possible twisted stom­ach/displaced abomasum.

Calving care
Photo by Hugh J. Karreman, V.M.D.

One of the biggest factors shown to hinder cows that are coming into third lactation or older is low blood levels of calcium (hypocal­cemia/milk fever). This needs to be prevented at all costs as it is a major factor behind a cow not passing the placenta, becoming ketotic, and/or developing a displaced abomasum (twisted stomach). Studies have found that keeping potassium to less than 2.0 percent of the dry cow ration is important in preventing milk fever. Dry cows should not be fed calcium-rich or potassium-rich feeds such as alfalfa. Feed­ing grassy hay is a great way to accomplish this, but you still need to make sure the hay comes from areas that do not have high potassium in the soil. Grassy hays can indeed have higher amounts of potas­sium than recommended, especially on farms that have spent lots of money chemical fertilizer over the years in addition to spreading barn manure. In conventional systems, anionic salts are fed to counteract diets high in potassium and calcium; however, they are very unpalat­able and need to be “hidden” in the TMR (total mixed ration). Small organic farms might not use TMRs as a feeding strategy and instead use component feeding (feeding each feed sequentially), so the an­ionic salts aren’t able to blend/hide among other feeds. Additionally, anionic salts may not be allowed by some organic certifiers. Howev­­er, there is a very nice, natural alternative to anionic salts: apple cider vinegar. Feed apple cider vinegar at the rate of two ounces twice daily for two weeks prior to calving (remember the 2-2-2 rule). Apple cider vinegar is acetic acid, which gives off a negatively charged acetate ion, somewhat like the anionic salts. In general, relatively more negative ions (like sulfates) should be fed in during the dry period relative to positive ions (like calcium and potassium), whereas during lactation, relatively more calcium and potassium should be fed compared to the negative ions like sulfates. One interesting ion is magnesium (a posi­tive ion). This should be around 3 percent of the dry cow ration and can be even higher. Magnesium is an incredibly important mineral nutrient for healthy muscles in general, balancing contraction and re­laxation in an optimal way.

If severe edema is a problem, you have too many sources of sodium in your dry cow ration (sodium is also a positive ion). Do not give free-choice salt to dry cows, especially not to springing heifers, if ud­der edema has been an issue on the farm.

Consider teat dipping dry cows within two weeks of fresh­ening twice daily since the kera­tin plug barriers at the teat ends are softening and environmental bacteria can start to enter the teat canal and cause mastitis. This is especially dangerous during the springtime as the bacteria in the cows’ bedding and environment seem to be “waking up” with the warmer temperatures.

Also, springing heifers should start being fed at least some of what the lactating cows are eating in terms of hay quality, ensiled feeds, and grain in order to have their rumen bugs adjust. Remember to avoid sudden changes in feed rations at all costs in dairy animals. It takes about two weeks for the rumen bugs to adjust to feed changes.

Okay, that’s the pre-game plan. But what about the day-of plan for actual calving?

First of all, try to gauge when a cow will likely freshen. Cows that are within two weeks of freshening need to be observed a few times daily for loosening of the ligaments near the vulva as well as gen­eral feed intake, especially in bull-bred herds when the exact breeding dates are not known. Additionally, cows diagnosed as possibly having twins should be watched especially carefully as they tend to calve one to two weeks earlier than the expected due date. Cows that are getting ready to calve will begin to eat less at about twelve hours prior to calv­ing. The vulva will look somewhat fuller and looser as well. Milk may be dripping from the teats for a few days beforehand (definitely dip teats if dripping). Normal signs also include gradual “bagging-up” over a couple weeks’ time (udder enlarges) and a softening of the ligaments between the tail and pin bones. ­

Some older cows bag up real quickly right before calving. Beware: these older cows likely become milk fever cases. I’ve seen it often. This occurs because all of a sudden at calving the bones are called upon to release lots of calcium into the bloodstream, and they are simply not able to do so at the rate needed. Then the bloodstream calcium levels become very low and the older cow either gets a slow start or goes down with real milk fever. It is much better to see a cow “bag up” over a few weeks time because to give her bones time to adjust to releasing increasing amounts of calcium into the bloodstream instead of an in­stant demand right at calving time. Severe amounts of fluid accumula­tion in front of and in the udder in springing heifers are usually due to free-choice salt: getting too much and then drinking a lot of water and retaining it (due to the salt in the system). In these cases the suspen­sory ligament of the udder may rupture and the udder will forever be damaged. It may be good to use an udder bra/support on these animals (any lactation or age).

By the way, if the discharge is red at any time during pregnancy, the cow should be checked. If you see a red discharge near the time of calving, wash her up and reach in. A red discharge is a red flag that something is wrong. Do not wait. Get her checked the day you notice the red discharge. If a calf is dead, it needs to come out right away since they enlarge and get spongy as they decompose inside. Removal of an enlarged spongy dead calf is obviously more difficult, and the chances of a positive outcome for the cow decrease as time ticks away.

Source: Four Seasons Organic Cow Care