Sunday, July 21, 2024

Ron’s Nurse Cows

At Holterholm Farms, an organic dairy farm in Maryland, the calves are raised on nurse cows. Of the 130 cows calving this year, 20 will be used as nurse cows. Ron Holter and his son, Adam Holter, choose the nurse cows by picking those that don’t quite fit the bill for milking. Here’s a note from Ron explaining their system:

We choose the cows that might have a high SCC (somatic cell count), or don’t work so well in the parlor with a nasty temperament or slow to let her milk down, or maybe she’s a three-titter that doesn’t fit the milkers too well.

Each nurse cow covers about 2 and a half calves. Younger three titters and first calf heifers get two calves, and four titters and mature three titters each get three calves.

A Holterholm nurse cow watches over her charges.
A Holterholm nurse cow watches over her charges.

We graft the calves onto the nurse cow after they nurse from their momma for 12-24 hours. The nurse cow calved the same day as they were born, so the calves continue to get colostrum until the nurse cow naturally stops producing it.

We attempt to keep the nurse cow and calves separate for a week to week and a half before they are joined together with other nurse cows and calves so they are bonded to their new nanny. The nurse cows and calves graze on a separate rotation at the far end of the farm and usually wean at 6 to 7 months of age.  Depending on whether the nurse cow lets her milk down or not we milk her or dry her off.  The nurse cows are usually pretty thin so most get dried off to put on condition before winter.

We have been using nurse cows for 5 or 6 years. We had heard a lot of talk about leaving calves with their mommas and decided to tweak that with using nurse cows in another group to utilize cows that might not be useful in their parlor system.

Calf health is phenomenal! Labor costs are minimal, 5 to 10 minutes per day to feed 50 calves.  An absolute fantastic way to raise calves.

Take care,


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Rachel Gilker
Rachel Gilker
Rachel's interest in sustainable agriculture and grazing has deep roots in the soil. She's been following that passion around the world, working on an ancient Nabatean farm in the Negev, and with farmers in West Africa's Niger. After returning to the US, Rachel received her M.S. and Ph.D. in agronomy and soil science from the University of Maryland. For her doctoral research, Rachel spent 3 years working with Maryland dairy farmers using management intensive grazing. She then began her work with grass farmers, a source of joy and a journey of discovery.


  1. Thanks for sharing. I have read some descriptions of pasture raised bottle calves but that seems like too much washing/sanitizing and mixing for our schedule. Even the great series of articles about raising dairy breed veal calves featured on this site made me wonder if I had time and enough high quality pasture for that type of thing. BUT this seems a bit more manageable for two people with a bunch of other stuff going on.


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