Now that your calves are safe and sound at your facility from their initial transport from the dairy where they were born, it’s time to really understand what it is to handle animals with the mentality of an infant yet the size of a large Labrador Retriever or Great Dane (because that’s how big they’ll be when they’re less than a week old). Being born is a tiresome business and just like all other newborns, calves want to do three things for the first few weeks of life: eat, eliminate and sleep.
One thing I’ve said, yet folks often fail to comprehend, is just because a calf may weight a hundred pounds when they hit the ground, they are more delicate than a kitten. Think about that. I’ve watched as momma cats have drug their kittens from nest to nest shortly after giving birth with little adverse affects, yet when humans go hauling calves from one place to another–sometimes even on the same farm–the result is a failure to thrive. Calves that are stressed, especially those who have been moved away from their mothers in less than 72 hours after birth, often suffer from a number of maladies, the three big ones being pneumonia, Coccidiosis and E. coli.
Several of my suppliers have been more than willing to provide me with the bull calves at a week old as they detest the local sale barns where they have often seen calves still wet from birth in the auction ring. Many of them even pen cows and calves together allowing the calf to nurse naturally prior to putting the cow back into the parlor and just keeping the precious immune-building colostrum (first milk) that is critical for the health of newborns.
Minimize handling your new calves for the first week to minimize stress. The only time I handle calves during week one is when they are fed. That’s not to say I don’t check on them often, but when I’m not feeding them, it’s an unobtrusive look in to make sure they aren’t laying flat out on their side or have gotten their head stuck in a water bucket or some sort of other mischief.
Feeding always begins with individual bottles. NEVER FEED A CALF WITH A BUCKET. Calves mouths (and all mammals who suckle) are designed to use a nipple. Would you try to feed a newborn child out of a cup when it is only days old? This is the most unnatural thing for a calf and it will not consume enough milk to thrive. By using individual bottles, you can be certain how much a calf is consuming. Look for copious saliva production when your calf uses a nipple. This is a sign of health and will aid with digestion of the milk. When calves feed from buckets they do not salivate. Bottles are also the easiest way to delivery remedies if, for example, within the first few days a calf begins to scour (diarrhea). About 90% of the time, scours can be alleviated by adding 1-2 raw eggs and either 8 ounces of cultured whole milk yogurt, cultured buttermilk or raw milk to the bottle if you are using a milk replacer formula.
There is another reason I choose to use bottles for the first 2-4 weeks–the calves will become extremely tame and follow your wiggling fingers making them much easier to lead as they grow larger. Calves will willingly jump on to a stock trailer at the sight of a bottle or mommy bucket which has multiple advantages–low stress for the animals and safer for the farmer. Because of this practice, I have been loading my calves by myself for years now when it’s time to harvest them. There is no need for expensive chutes, electric prods or brute force.
A word of caution, however – this type of devotion can also result in safety issues when in open pasture with larger calves. For calves who have been started by holding their head between my legs in order to get them to take a bottle–this is particularly needed for calves allowed to suckle from their damn instead of going straight on to the bottle right after birth at the dairy–calves will nudge from behind out of habit. If the calf is large enough, you will end up on your rear end as it runs between your legs looking for a bottle.
A note about milk replacer formula–there are many options out there on the market, some are medicated. Medicated feed can include antibiotics to reduce issues with E. coli and/or medication to prevent Coccidia (protozoan parasite). Similarly, less expensive formulas are based upon soy and include blood plasma to boost protein content. From my experience using many different brands and formulations of milk replacer, I’ve found that investing in a quality product up front will give you a quality product upon harvest. I do not use milk replacer formulas that contain either soy products, plasma or medication.
Once you have decided on a type and brand of formula, DO NOT SWITCH. This is a sure way to upset your calves’ digestive systems and set them back in gaining weight. My rule of thumb is to always keep at least one unopened bag of replacer on hand when feeding calves. That way I am certain not to run out and make a mad dash for the feed store only to find out they, too, are out.
When choosing a formula, don’t just look at the ingredients to make your decision, but read the mixing directions as well. Some formulas only call for 8 ounces of powder per quart while others require 10, even 12 ounces to make quart. That fifty pound bag may sound like a deal compared to other brands, but in the long run will end up costing more.
There has been much debate and experimentation on how much and how often to feed calves. I start out feeding two quarts a day–morning and evening for the first week and then adding a full mid-day bottle for larger breeds the second week. This is where paying attention to your livestock is critical. Will they drink a full bottle at mid-day? Are they enthusiastic about their evening meal? Are they showing signs of scouring? By the third week or fourth week, I try to have them up to four bottles a day (2 gallons). While this type of feeding schedule can wreak havoc with your social life, it’s well worth the effort until the calves are transferred to mommy buckets and dialed back to two 1-gallon feedings per day.
I’ve mentioned this contraption called a “mommy bucket”. What is it? Basically, it’s a bucket with two nipples attached to it. Some folks use 5-gallon buckets, others prefer flat-backed square buckets. I have access to lots of 3-gallon buckets so I use them. They cost about fifteen bucks each to make. While you may be able to find bucket teat units at your local supply store, I purchase ALL of my mommy bucket supplies from Premier One Supplies (the exception to this being the bucket and hardware for hanging the bucket on the fence). Advice to the wise—ALWAYS keep extra teats and extra rubber gaskets on hand and spend the extra $3.50 for a teat unit wrench. Tractor Supply and many of the local suppliers carry a brand of teat that is black. While these work in a pinch, they will not last an entire season. Teats are less than $2 each so, like the straw for bedding, start with fresh when starting a new batch of calves. Mommy buckets will get dirty and should be cleaned regularly. After their use with batch of calves, I remove the teat unit from the bucket and thoroughly sanitize the bucket, cleaning out any goo that has collected inside. At the same time, I replace the teats and if needed, the gaskets.
Upon arrival, calves are housed in large stalls 16’x16′ well-bedded with straw. They have access to fresh, clean water at all times. Larger calves, such as Holsteins or Brown Swiss are kept two or three to a stall, but the smaller breeds such as Jersey and Jersey crosses can have four. Personally, I like to keep it to two as that is what is easiest for one person to feed without getting mugged.
After they’ve spent their first week here at the farm, I begin letting them out of the barn into a large paddock area in the morning after their first feeding and then bringing them in later in the afternoon for their second feeding. This allows the calves access to fresh grass and to interact with the others who will ultimately become their pasture mates. One of my favorite things about raising calves (other than Osso Buco and sweetbreads) is watching them run for the very first time. Be prepared for a few face plants into the ground and fence during this time as they learn to use their legs.
Another reason I prefer keeping calves in the barn is the smaller space makes it easier for bottle feeding and to eventually train to suckling from a “mommy bucket”. Once they have successfully mastered the mommy buckets, calves are moved to outdoor paddocks constructed of woven wire as at this point they are not ready for high tensile electric wire, which they will run right through. A terrified calf that has been shocked is no joy to catch.
One note of housekeeping advice here–when calves leave the barn for good, clean out ALL of the bedding and spray down the area with a bleach solution. I use a 1-gallon garden sprayer with a 1:10 dilution. Similarly, thoroughly clean and sanitize all buckets and bottles used by those particular calves before starting the next batch of calves. And when bedding the animals, make sure NOT TO USE MOLD OR DUSTY STRAW. These few simple steps of cleanliness will ensure a better chance of raising healthy, vigorous calves (or any animals, for that matter.)
In the outdoor paddocks (the smallest being 60’x60′), no more than six calves are housed together at a time. In many mob-feeding operations, at this stage of the game they routinely house up to two dozen calves together. However, I’ve found that even when calves are of similar size and age in groups of more than six someone still gets out-competed for food and will fail to thrive. Since this series of articles is aimed at people getting started with veal calves, I’m going to stick to my advice of only housing six at a time together when they are in the 1-2 month/100-200 pound stage.
At this stage, the calves are hardy critters and can withstand all seasons as long as they have access to clean, fresh water and shelter with dry bedding. Again, do not use dusty or moldy straw. In the winter months, I will also bed with grass hay mixed with alfalfa to give the calves something on which to nibble. At no time do I ever use saw dust. It’s expensive, messy and causes respiratory issues.
This is also the stage where if you choose to feed grain, you can start offering it to the calves. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with grain over the years. It’s always a fine balance between getting an animal to market weight in the requisite amount of time. Jersey and Jersey crosses are difficult to get to market weight in less than six month on just milk and grass. If you have the time and the grass, that’s great. Go for it. You’ll be blessed with delicious meat, especially if calves have access the milk the entire time. However, if you are using milk replacer, this is not feasible to feed out a calf entirely on milk. At this point, there are two choices–good, quality alfalfa and/or 16% protein calf feed.
In the paddock, calves are pretty much on autopilot–eat, sleep, pee, poop & play. Being in woven or welded wire, there’s little chance of escape and they are large enough that a bout of scours isn’t going to kill them in a few hours. That doesn’t mean, however, that they can be ignored. Just as important as what is going in the front end, you want to keep an eye on what is coming out the back end. By now the calves will be nibbling at the grass and their stools should be firming up to look more like cow patties. But if a calf is squirting watery diarrhea, it’s time to take a good look and figure out what’s going on.
Scours can be caused by a variety of agents–protozoans (Coccidia, Cryptosporidia), bacteria (E. coli) and virus (Roto or Corona virus). Knowing the symptoms of each is critical for understanding how to treat the calf. Viruses need to run their course and the only thing to do is isolate the calf and provide enough fluids to prevent dehydration. A Coccidia infection will result in a brilliant yellow diarrhea with a more gelatinous texture and streaks of blood. Coccidia is present naturally, just like E. coli, and is a malady caused by stress, a depressed immune system and poor management (sanitation & crowding).
Stress, stress, stress, scours, scours, scours….now you know why I say calves are more delicate than kittens. They are not meant to be taken from momma, trucked to auction, trucked to a barn where they are crowded with lots of other calves and fed unnaturally in a bucket with soy and blood-based slop loaded with harsh chemicals to prevent them from getting sick. Remember – minimal transport, minimal crowding, minimal problems, maximum return.
The final stage of grow is off to the pasture. For farmers just getting started or who have minimal land, life in a large paddock with access to grass and good hay works just fine. Here at Painted Hand Farm we are set up for rotational grazing and browsing with a series of pastures, paddocks and alley ways. Larger calves (150-200 pounds) are put into pasture with well-bedded shelters and fresh water. Mommy buckets are hung on the gates while milk is still being fed.
Keep in mind that while they are still mentally babies, they are now getting big enough to hurt you even though they are not being malicious–they’re just being calves. I do not castrate my bull calves as I believe an open wound only sets up opportunity for infection and it causes needless stress on the animals as they will be harvested before they reach breeding age. That does not mean, however, they won’t exhibit behaviors such as mounting each other as a form of play. They’re young males doing what young males do and again, these are words of caution from experience. When bull calves surpass 200 pounds, when you are in open pasture with them, carry a stick, do not run from calves chasing you, do not turn your back on them. Their hooves are sharp. Wear shoes with closed toes, preferably boots. Crocs don’t count as shoes even though they’re easy to clean when a calf craps on your feet. You will be slobbered on, sucked on, chewed on, peed on, crapped on, kicked and even knocked down a time or two before you get the hang of handling calves.
Raising calves for veal can be a rewarding and profitable venture for new and beginning farmers as long as you use common sense. As the adage goes–you are what you eat eats. I am a firm believer that when people eat sick animals, they too become sick. Calves that are raised in an industrial environment aren’t the ones ending up at farmers markets, fine dining establishments and boutique butcher shops–they’re the ones ground into breaded patties and served smothered in sauce for less than $10 a plate. Calves raised in clean and humane environments that are well-fed are in demand by discerning and educated consumers who understand the value and increasingly, customers are also becoming aware of the carbon footprint associated with raising beef as opposed to that of harvesting animals at a younger age.
Take aways for this installment……
- Calves MUST HAVE had a good start with colostrum in order to live and thrive.
- Use a non-medicated quality milk replacer.
- Started calves on individual bottles to ensure their milk intake.
- How to build a ‘mommy bucket’.
- Causes and cures for scours.
So if you are a new or beginning farmer in an area where you have access to dairy bull calves, consider raising veal.
In the next installment of this series, I’ll be talking about harvesting, processing and packaging. Stay tuned…..