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.