Late March and into April is calving season on the farm; time when we have lots of babies in the nursery barn. We always get a lot of questions at this time of year, so it is worth revisiting why we farm the way we do.
You may have seen, or at least heard of, inhumane veal-raising techniques. The image people usually recall when they swear off veal, are rows and rows of small white pens housing increasingly large calves. So when you, our friends, visit our nursery barn, don’t mistake our calf pens for veal pens, because you are actually looking at young dairy heifers!
The young ladies in our nursery are milk cows in the making, and will stay in their pens for about three months while they are still drinking milk every day. Once they are big enough, they will join their older peers in the larger calf paddock.
Visitors have asked why we do not allow the calves to stay with their mothers during their early months, and there are several answers to that question.
First, with the youngest calves close by in individual pens, it is much easier to monitor their health, wellness, and growth. When calves are scampering through the fields in a large herd, they are much more prone to illness, injury, and even getting lost (the adventurous babies like to wander)! By keeping a close eye on them, we can thoroughly assess each calf every day.
Second, it is better for the emotional welfare of both cow and calf to separate them immediately after delivery. Whether right off the bat, or after weeks of direct nursing, there will ultimately come a day when the babies must leave their mothers. The separation process is much less stressful if taken care of right away, because the longer cow and calf are together, the more they will bond, and a strong emotional bond makes for a very stressful separation. We prefer for our animals to be both healthy and happy, so we limit this stress by doing a post-partum separation. The proof is in the peace and quiet of our barns at calving time… no bellowing or lowing across pastures, no stress.
Third, bottle-feeding allows us to monitor the calves’ daily milk intake. Calves can be greedy and will drink so much milk that their mothers make themselves sick trying to keep up with the baby’s demands. And in the field, other calves will try and nurse from cows other than their mothers, which can cause the problem of not enough milk going to a more reticent baby. Like all babies, calves need a certain amount of milk to thrive and grow. In the field, we cannot make sure everyone is getting enough food. In the nursery, we are able to ensure that each calf is getting enough milk to grow up healthy and strong, without putting too much stress on their mothers.
And lastly, calves can and will go feral if not in regular contact with people. By handling and socializing with the young stock on a daily basis, we are conditioning them to be comfortable and friendly around people. This will make things much easier, and safer, when we introduce them to the milking parlor in a couple of years.
So when calving starts next month, come visit our nursery and get to know our youngest family members! Find out which will give you kisses all day long, or who loves scratches under her chin. Our farmers know their calves. When you spend as much time with them as we do, you have to.