Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Growing Up on Our Farm - Calf to Heifer to Milk Cow

Calves are born on our farm every day. The heifer (female) calves are raised to become the future of our milking herd. The bull (male) calves are sold at the local livestock auction.

One of our heifer calves in a hutch

Our heifer calves spend the first three months in an individual hutch where they receive personal attention. The first months of life are critical for the calves health and well-being. Their hutches are filled with clean, dry straw to keep each calf comfortable and healthy.

Lad and Jack feed the calves

Individual hutches allow each calf to have their own milk, grain and water.

A calf having a meal - one bucket contains milk the other water

Hutches provide a healthy setting protecting calves from each other’s germs.

This is one of our larger "super" hutches that houses older calves

When a calf is about three months old, she is moved to group housing and her diet changes to grain and water. At four months, she will be transitioned to a diet of grain, dry hay and a small amount of milk cow ration (corn silage, haylage, soybean meal, ground corn and vitamin/mineral mix).

Young heifers in group housing

When a heifer is 13 months old, she goes into the breeding pen where she is bred using artificial insemination. At this stage, she eats grass silage, corn silage and distillers grain.

The older heifers are in a freestall barn similar to our cows
Lad and Taylor pregnancy check these older heifers

When a heifer is about two years old, she is ready to have her first calf. Animals at this stage are called “springers” and they are housed in the close-up pen. When she is a few days away from calving, she will be moved to the maternity pen where she is checked frequently in case she needs assistance with calving.

The maternity barn

 Once she has a calf, she will enter the milking herd.

Taylor Emmons
We are very fortunate to have Taylor Emmons on our team. One of Taylor’s responsibilities on our farm is managing the heifer program. Taylor grew up in this community and is a recent Virginia Tech graduate. Thank you to Taylor who does an excellent job nurturing the future of our herd!


  1. Thank you for this post. I always wondered about the hutches when I pass Dairy farms in my area and, as I am sure may be is the case with some, at least I know not all house males destined to be veal, tied on short chains. I know, I am sure that is a sterotypical and incorrect answer, but it was my understanding until I read this post. I am now relieved! I enjoy your blog and educating myself on Dairy Farms! Thanks for sharing.

  2. huh. I never thought about it before, but I suppose a cow has to have a calf in order to lactate, right?

  3. That's correct Katie, a cow starts producing milk after she has a calf.

    Thank you Allison and Katie for taking the time to share your comments.

  4. What is the purpose of a close-up pen? I am taking my veterinary technician state test and this was on it before.


  5. Thanks for the question. Cows are moved to the close-up pen when they’re 20-30 days away from calving. This segregates them from the rest of the herd and allows us to monitor them more closely. While in the close-up pen, they receive an enhanced feed ration which includes additional minerals their bodies require to meet the demands of calving. They are also vaccinated to protect against E-coli mastitis and salmonella. When a cow looks like she’s going to calve in 1-2 days, she’s moved to the maternity pen where she will have her calf.

  6. Is it true the male calves are sold for veal and the mother cows are separated from their calves so humans can have the milk meant for the calves?? That's what I hear...

  7. On our farm, we sell the bull (male) calves at the local cattle auction each week. These calves are purchased and raised for beef. They could be purchased by a veal producer or someone who raises them similar to beef cows. Either way they will eventually be processed into beef for human consumption.

    As I mention in this blog, our heifer calves spend the first three months in an individual hutch for their health and well-being. It’s not true that “calves are separated from their mothers so humans can have the milk meant for calves”. They are separated for the health and safety of the calf. Our calves are fed a healthy diet which includes cow’s milk. We bottle feed baby calves for a few days and then train them to drink from a bucket. Calves do well on a diet of cow’s milk, water and grain in their first months of life.

    I received a comment on another blog post that applies to your question, “I am still perplexed how people can project human traits and feelings on to an animal. Saying it is "cruel" to rip away a new born calf from its mother is a human sentiment, not one that the cow concerns herself with.”

    Our cows and calves thrive in their environment. If they were not care for properly, they would not eat or drink or produce milk. Health and productivity are the signs of a “happy" cow and calf.

  8. Thank you for replying, Dairy Mom. I know this is your family business and you feel you are providing the best care for animals that are used for profit. This following link is the idea I had for cows: Artist provides a sanctuary for aging dairy cows
    www.pressofatlanticcity.com Here is a women who has been in the business like you but sees things differently.

    I could not do your job. I only hope you feel some remorse as they take the male calves away for slaughter and take the females from their mothers. May St. Francis be with these animals on their horrible journey ahead. Thank you for posting this comment. Peace.

  9. Our animals live a comfortable life and produce a nutrient-rich product. I’m proud we provide excellent care to our animals and find satisfaction in producing quality milk and meat that feed families in this nation and around the world.

  10. I recently saw a show on RFD TV featuring a local Texas dairy. The film was created by the dairy industry, and was obviously meant to showcase practices that the dairy industry was proud of. I was horrified. The milk cows kept in a small, dry lot (though it was admirably clean). The separation of young cows and their utter confinement and isolation into cramped veal barns (or hutches as you say).
    I was very ashamed for purchasing a product for so many years without considering the way the animals were handled.
    I am not a cattleman. But I have worked for many years in horse barns. My husband spent his youth and young adulthood working at a dairy in England, and professionally managed stables for 20 years as an adult (he was equally horrified by the practices this show detailed).
    Young cows (or any mammal) are very distressed when seperated from mom. I have listened to my neighbors calves bay for days when newly seperated. Young mammals need exercise and contact with others (imagine confining a foal or a puppy in such a "hutch" for 3 full months).
    I have cut our milk consumption in 1/2 since watching that show (a challenge with 3 children under 5). I have only purchased organic milk (a challenge with a slim grocery budget), and I have felt sad about every dairy product I purchase. I have just found your website though. I intend to puruse it with an open mind, in the hopes that my conclusions are incorrect.

  11. I appreciate you finding my blog and asking questions. I’m not sure which video you watched, so can’t speak to what you saw. But I can tell you about my family farm. Our cows are housed in temperature controlled freestall barns where cows are kept comfortable with individual beds and fresh, clean bedding. These barns are built with optimal cow comfort in mind because we want our cows to be happy and healthy.

    Regarding calf care, calves are separated from cows for the health and well-being of both animals. After the calf moves to a hutch, the cow begins to eat, drink, rest and produce milk. If she were distressed, she would not do these things. Likewise, the calves eat, drink, rest and are content in their safe and comfortable hutch. I’m not sure what was going on at your neighbor’s farm, but it’s our experience that when a calf bawls it’s because she is hungry. Hutches allow calves to be monitored, allow them to have their own food and water (without competing for it) and keep them healthy during their critical first months of life. Our calves succeed in this environment.

    It’s our #1 priority to do everything we can to make sure our animals are comfortable, healthy and well cared for. Animals can’t speak to us so we measure their level of comfort and satisfaction by observation. If a dairy cow is content she eats, drinks, lies down, chews her cud and produces quality milk. We observe these characteristics in our cows daily. I encourage you to visit a dairy farm if you can. I think if you observed first-hand how the animals are treated, you would be pleasantly surprised. Most people that tour our farm arrive with the perception that animals are treated poorly due to what they have seen or read on the news or the Internet. But when they observe the cows, their housing, their feed, fresh drinking water and the level of care they receive each day, visitors have a new perspective.

    All dairy farmers, traditional and organic, do their best to provide excellent care for their animals. There is no scientific evidence concluding that organic dairy products are safer or healthier than traditionally produced dairy products. I buy traditional dairy products for my family because I know they provide the same combination of nutrients and the animals that produced the milk are well cared for. What you feed your family is your choice and I’m glad we have so many choices available at the grocery store.

  12. Dairy mom,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. I have spent a good deal of time reading your blog, and feel I should apologize. You have proved that many of my concerns about dairy farms are unfounded. I am impressed to see what an incredibly clean facility you have (I realize what a huge accomplishment this is, and how much work it must take). I am impressed to see how healthy your animals are (good weight, fine hair coat). I am impressed to see your comittment to animal health (regular hoof care, nutritionist designed rations, regular observation etc.). I am impressed to see how you have designed you barn to meet the social needs of your older animals (love, love, love the freestall barn! What a respectful way to keep a herd animal!). I am also impressed at the amount of testing that goes into your milk, and relieved to know that milk is NOT full of antibiotics and artificial hormones.

    I apologize for not giving you and other modern dairy farmers the benefit of the doubt, and for drawing conclusions by listening to only 1/2 the story (the 1/2 promoted by dairy critics).

    Thank you for doing a good job caring for your animals!

    P.S. I would love for you to create a post telling how you meet the social and exercise needs of your youngest cows, and how you meet the exercise needs of your milk cows.

  13. Thanks for the response. It made my day! I'm glad you suggested a future blog topic because I want to write about things people are interested in.

  14. i dont no how you answer all theese idiotic people that wear leather shoes and 95percent of there products contain some type of milk product i grew up on a family farm we raised miss piggy till she became miss bucket of lard n bacon all r calves were seperated after 3 r 4 days from mom theese idiots dont no nothing about farming they r the reasons our culture is on the deccline over educated with no common sense i see you have a very nice farm i grew up in ohio dairy country loved it but i moved several times and cant get hardly really any good farm fresh in the city of new orleans good luck on educating the educated lmao
    the milkman

  15. You write, "Our cows and calves thrive in their environment. If they were not care for properly, they would not eat or drink or produce milk. Health and productivity are the signs of a 'happy' cow and calf."

    So, unhappy mammals all express their feelings by going on hunger strike?

    1. When animals are uncomfortable and/or sick, they don’t eat or drink like they should. To clarify my statement, good animal care leads to healthy and comfortable animals that display normal activity. This activity includes eating the proper quantity of food to get the nutrients they need, drinking the amount of water necessary and relaxing comfortably between meals. Healthy, content, well-fed cows produce more milk than cows that are sick, uncomfortable and don’t get the nutrients they require.

  16. Please explain why a calf cannot stay with its mother until it is weened. If you are feeding the calf cow's milk anyway, why can't it just drink its own mother's milk? And, why would it be considered unclean? You have a very nice, clean farm. If you allowed this practice, I'm sure your heifers and calves would also be together in a clean and natural environment.

    1. I believe a fellow dairy farmer did a great job addressing this topic in her blog "Why do you take the calves from their mothers?"

    2. Dairy Mom,
      I am a young girl working on my family's farm milking about 85 cows and one of my responsibilities is calf management. I see that on your farm you feed milk with a large tank and wand, is there a heater on it to keep the milk warm? I always wondered how they kept it warm because I know calves wont drink cold milk, and my dad always told me it wasn't good for them to

    3. There isn't a heater on the small tank used to feed the calves. We take cow's milk out of the line before it is cooled, so it's the cow's body temperature when loaded into the tank. The youngest calves are fed first, so the milk they receive is the warmest. The milk gets cooler by the time the last calf is fed.


Thank you for reading my blog and taking the time to comment! I’m opening the doors of our farm to share with you and enjoy engaging in discussion. Please be respectful in your comments. I reserve the right to remove posts that include name calling, slander, and vulgar language or contain links to websites that assault animal agriculture.

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