Orphans of Industrial Ag.

It's kind of hard not to feel sorry for dairy bull calves.

From the standpoint of the dairyman they are at best a byproduct of the process, at worst a nuisance and cow killer. When a heifer calf hits the ground, you can bet she is swept up and fawned over from the first moment, little bulls like this not so much. The little dairy where I trade a couple hours worth of chores a day for bull calves is a mom and pop outfit. They care for each cow like no thousand cow dairy could, they know each girl by sight, who her mom was and who her girls are.

Still when lots of things are going on, like today, a little guy like this can get forgotten. Today 3 cows calved, one cow went down with milk fever (calcium deficiency) then died in the hay barn right in the way of the feed wagon. The vet had to be called because I thought one of the dry cows had been acting funny and this morning she was pushing like labor though she wasn't due for weeks - turned out she had a dead calf in her - not a pretty situation.

I sometimes call modern Holsteins "Frankenstein Milk Monsters" because they are bred for just one thing: to provide your double chocolate chocolate chip ice cream as cheaply as possible. To that end they are selected for - what else, giving milk in the largest amount with the least input until they fall over dead, which isn't but a few years nowdays. They are big, they have a hard time standing on slick concrete holding pens and sometimes fall and "Split out" ruining their ligaments I suppose and though they get hand fed, watered, lifted with a tractor and sling for exercise they usually expire.

Though sires are also selected for small birth weights at least somewhat, many times the dam is a huge bruiser (a good thing) and she throws a huge bruiser calf and if it's her first or second calf it can kill her. There are two first time moms in the hay barn over there, due to birth paralysis they have hobbles on their back legs to keep them from falling and splitting out.

One thing they are never selected for is being good moms because they don't usually see that calf but just for a few hours. That's what happened to this guy, they were in a nice lean too shed up out of the muck but mom would have nothing to do with him. A good mom starts licking a calf right away and soon cleans him dry, it stimulates the calfs circulation and makes it want to get up and suck which in turn helps the mom "clean" – expel the placenta. But of course none of that matters because people take care of all that stuff, mom goes on the milk string and calf goes in a hutch.

This guy is gonna have a hard time, he got pretty cold before I got him home and rubbed down. He went right after the bottle though and it warmed him up enough to start shivering, a good sign. He's wearing the red poncho to help warm up (and my belt because I couldn't find the velcro). His hutch is nice and warm and I shoved him in and hope he'll stay inside, it's misty and kind of windy though only about 40*.

Dairy calves as opposed to beef calves are quite helpless, many are so large as to not be able to stand on their own, especially bull calves which are larger than heifers. Many times the reflex to nurse seems to be missing as well, I was feeling pretty good so far, we have 5 babies (out of 20-25 in the next couple months) and I haven't had to use a stomach tube on one - till this morning... and the same calf this evening. It is imperative for a calf to get a gallon of colostrum (first milk) in the first 24 hours. It contains moms antibodies and the calf's a ability to absorb them decreases by 50% every 10 hours from birth. Without those antibodies that kid is gonna have a hard time surviving without lots of meds.

Don't get me wrong, I don't bring home the little muckers because I feel sorry for them, I bring them home because it's one way to make some cash money in the country on the edge of modern farming. It's hard to not like the little shits when they are little and frisky out kicking and bucking when we move them from the hutches to group pens at a couple weeks. And though I cuss at 'em when they are daring me to keep them alive it makes me feel good when they do good. 

Still, I hope to buy some old line dual purpose heifers this year, maybe old line milking shorthorns, red polls or Devons. Some old "family cow" line that was abandoned when the transition to concentrate feeding began in the 40's and 50's. Some line whose moms don't need chains and butt jacks to calve, remember how to mother a calf and haven't been bred to be walking udders.

It would be nice if there were a market out there for just a good sturdy family milk and meat cow that gives a good amount of milk and calves that grow meat instead of just hair and were raised on grass by their moms instead of being orphaned in the muck.


straker said...

Isn't there such a thing as an "heirloom" cow with more balanced features? Maybe in amish country?

Pops said...

Yea, American Devons are a medium size cow, good for milk, meat and draft. They were the first cattle brought here by the Europeans and just about extinct 50 years ago but a few old dairymen in the NE kept the breed alive. (this is what killjoy raises)

Milking Shorthorns were once the favored milker but lost out to Holsteins too. I think there are some old lines out there but in the last 15 years I've read the line has been much "improved" which I read to mean crossed with Holsteins to grow that huge udder and not waste energy on making muscle.

I worry about the miniature breeds like the Dexter or newer designer breeds. Just like Holsteins they've been bred for one thing and that usually causes problems.

You'd never know to look at a Cocker Spaniel that they were originally hunting dogs that have had all the sense bred out to get long pretty ears and "feathers".

Lauren said...

Hi Pops = Ran into you on The Oil Drum. Interesting article - we raise beef cows so I appreciate your experiences. I've only had to hand raise a couple of orphaned twins.

I now have Nigerian Dwarf goats - two of them give us half a gallon of milk a day and almost as much on one milking. Plus they're small and gentle enough for the grandkids. And the milk is great - not goaty at all and quite rich.

The other thing I ran into before I decided on the Nigis are "miniature Jerseys." That might be interesting too!

The pictures of your place are beautiful


Pops said...

Thanks Lauren, this part of the Ozarks between Springfield and Joplin is really great, just enough roll to be interesting but so rocky you can't plant something.

We haven't tried goats yet, it seems like lots of neighbors have them and they look like a kick!

hickchick said...

Hey Pops- I'd like to second the comment on the dramatic pasture scene-very nice! What age do you raise the calves to 18 months? Baby beef? We are in the heart of Wisconsin dairy land (where the Holsteins outnumber the humans!) We are trying ideas on for size for the 'future farm' of 15 acres pasture. Hmmm, beef, pastured poultry, all sounds good right now!

Pops said...

Hi Kris, thanks! I've been reading your blog.

To be honest we don't have a set age or size. We go by two things, how the market is and how our bank account is.

The nice thing about holsteins is there is a market at the sale barn almost every week so you can always get something. Last year my primary income, graphic design, was in the toilet so the little Muckers saved our bacon, sorta speak.

The feeder market is higher than last year but still lower than the previous couple. At our sale barn in Springfield last week (a little early yet but the grass is coming on) 300-400# calves are bringing $80-$90 per hundred = $270-$320, while 6-7 weights get $70-$80, right around $480.

So if you have a lot of grass then you buy stockers this time of year and turn 'em out, if you're like us and don't have much grass, only about 30ac, you can raise em up to stocker size and sell em, or wait till tax time and get what you can!

I'd think up there you would have a pretty steady market for Holsteins calves. You can always start with one or two just for fun - our granddaughters seem to like calves and the grandsons like chickens - don't know why!

Right now we have 16 head around 500#, 19 @ 250# and 7 babies @ 75# +/- (well 7 as of last night anyway.

I'd better go have my Malt-O-Meal...

carole said...

We raise beef - Murray Greys, which were originally from Australia. Also have two Gurnsey
milk cows. Their half-Murray,
Gurnsey heifers are really the
ideal family milk cow....good moms,
easy birthweights, enough milk for
two calves or one calf and some for the household.
Our website:
Very pretty photos on your site!!
OK Jeanne

Pops said...

Thanks for the info on the Greys, Jeanne, I didn't know anything about them.

I like Guernseys' personality except for their talent of finding open gates!