Stealing the calf’s milk

There’s an urban myth that dairy farmers rear calves away from the herd so we can harvest the special buttercup-yellow milk that comes with the first milkings after calving called colostrum. The irony is that one of the main reasons we collect calves early is to ensure they get plenty of colostrum.

According to a Dairy Australia fact sheet on colostrum management:

“Unlike humans, the placenta of the cow keeps the maternal blood supply separate from that of the unborn calf. This prevents the transfer of antibodies from the cow to the calf before birth and the calf is born with no ability to fight disease.”

“Colostrum is the substance that provides the antibodies that form the main protection from infectious diseases for the calf in the first 6 weeks of life, until the calf can develop antibodies of its own. Without colostrum, a calf is likely to die.”

What’s more, calves need it immediately, as DA goes on to explain:

“It is important to be clear about two key facts relating to colostrum:
• The calf’s intestine absorbs the large IgG molecules easily straight after birth
• The intestine’s ability to absorb antibodies decreases after birth—it decreases by 30–50 % within 6 hours of birth
• It stops completely between 24 to 36 hours after birth”

Yes, it’s vital to our calves.

We don’t sell a drop of the precious stuff (few farmers do, which is why it’s so expensive) and we’re not allowed to mix it with the rest of the milk because it goes off quickly. “Stealing colostrum from calves” is certainly not why we raise the calves away from the herd.

Why we raise calves away from the herd

We don’t leave calves with the herd because, if we did, many would die and I’ve discovered that, sadly, many do die on hobby farms in the district despite the best intention of their carers.

On our farm, we take calves into a shed when they are one day old. They are kept in a pen on a bed of clean sawdust with one or two other newborns so we can make sure they suckle well and get enough colostrum (special antibody-rich milk produced by a cow immediately after calving) in the first vital 48 hours of life. This long-time farming practice has been supported by studies, which show colostrum intake affects the health and milk production of a cow right thoughout her life.

We can’t take for granted that the calf will get enough colostrum in the paddock because some calves just don’t get the idea of suckling early enough and some cows (often the youngest) are not the most attentive of parents.

Another good reason to keep the calves separate from the herd is to prevent the transmission of Bovine Johnes Disease (BJD). Calves are the most likely to be infected by this horrible and fatal wasting disease, described this way by DPI Victoria:

“Cattle are usually infected when less than 12 months of age. However, due to a long incubation period, clinical disease is often not seen until the affected animal is 4 or 5 years or older. Signs may appear after a period of stress such as calving, poor nutrition, heavy milk production or any other cause.

As the bacteria lodge and multiply in the wall of the small intestine, the cow responds by producing inflammatory cells. This combination of bacteria and cells leads to a thickening and distortion of the gut wall. Eventually the gut fails to absorb water and nutrients. In dairy cattle, the first sign is often a drop in milk production. Affected animals then develop chronic diarrhoea. Cattle gradually lose weight and become emaciated, while still maintaining a good appetite. They may also develop ‘bottle jaw’, a swelling under the jaw.”

After about a week, most calves are really good feeders, so we take them out into a small grassy sheltered paddock with a group of about 20 other calves. From there, they “graduate” to a larger paddock with up to 40 other calves. After they are eating about 1.5kg of pellets or grain each per day plus hay, they are weaned. Well fed and in the company of their peer group, this is a stress-free and exciting time for the calves.

The calves are fed a special high protein (18%) ration of grain, together with grass to keep them growing at their optimum. They are split into size groups so that none of the little ones miss out. Left in the herd, the smaller ones would not be able to compete for this essential food for growing bodies.

The herd is also a tough place for little creatures. Our cows are classed as medium-stature Friesians, yet weigh in at an average of 550kg each. I’d hate to have calves weighing just 40kg in a yard with 250 car-sized cows twice a day.

Human babies and calves are worlds apart

Face of a newborn calf

This calf is only a day old

At just one day old, this bright little calf can outrun any of us – Zoe can vouch for that! Given that my baby Alex will probably take his first staggering steps at about one year old, there’s no comparison between human and bovine babies in the athletic stakes.

There are some similarities though. Both need lots of colostrum in the early days and both have developing immune systems that mean extra TLC is essential early on. For this reason, we house the newborn calves in a warm, dry shed on beds of sawdust for their first week or so. We can monitor their intake of colostrum and make sure they’re sturdy enough for outdoor life with their friends.

Premmie twin girls

Yesterday, I spotted a tiny calf next to its mother and went to investigate. It looked too tiny, even from a distance. On my way across the paddock, I nearly missed another black and white bundle almost perfectly hidden in the grass. A second calf! Unlicked and still with a wet cord, this calf had been abandoned and she was tiny, too. About 9kg instead of the 40kg we’d normally expect for a healthy friesian newborn.

It turned out that she was the premmie sister of the other equally as small but far stronger heifer (female calf) who’d followed her mother. The cow, who’s one of the youngest in the herd, showed little interest in either of the twins and both were in urgent need of some TLC.

It’s critical that calves get a good feed of colostrum in their first 24 hours of life. This milk, which is only produced by newly-calved cows for a few days, is  incredibly rich and full of antibodies. Researchers have found colostrum consumption this early leads to marked differences in the health of cows over their lifetimes!

We brought the twins – named Ella and Bella by Zoe – back to the shed, sat them in the sun on a thick bed of fresh sawdust, dipped their cords in a mix of iodine and glycerine to prevent infection and gave them both a feed. I am hopeful for the stronger of the two, Bella, but the weakest little one, Ella, does not suckle well (never a good sign) and her breathing is not clear, so she’s had a shot of antibiotics to ward off pneumonia and give her immune system a fighting chance. We fed them three more times during the day and both seemed a little better. Fingers crossed.