Fall 2000
By Diane Shivera

The Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association has done a few livestock related workshops in the past two years. This column will recap some of the highlights of these workshops for those who weren’t able to attend. It will also include information that we have become aware of that might help in raising healthy animals. If any topic is of particular interest to you and you would like more information, please contact the office. We will help you with any other information we have, or direct you to other resources.

At a workshop on calf raising, we heard from Lisa McCrory, the dairy technical specialist from NOFA Vermont; Anne Lazor from Butterworks Farm; and Nancy Everhart of Hillside Farm. Many ideas presented by the speakers apply to any young animal. In many ways the two farms raise their calves very differently. The Lazors have tried many traditional methods – stalls, tied, and now groups – although a calf occasionally will be born at an inopportune time for the group and will end up being tied somewhere in the barn, a situation all farmers have experienced. Lazor has had good luck feeding milk to the calves and using rice water or electrolytes for scours. She has also had good results using both an E. coli nosode and a viral diarrhea nosode. The feeding methods have varied but the greatest success has been with teated milk barrels for the groups.

Hillside Farm is grass based and seasonal. Although this is not an option for most of you, Everhart did have some methods that you might find thought provoking. She raises her calves on nurse cows for the first three months of their lives. Some of the later calves are in a group that is fed from a barrel, so the waste milk is not discarded. All of the calves are out on pasture within the first week and are trained on the electric fence before going out. The nurse cows are chosen specifically. They can be cows with a high somatic cell count that would not be good to put in the tank, heifers, or other cows that would not be a big loss from the milking herd. A trick to get acceptance from the nurse cow is to rub the placenta of the cow on the calves before putting them together. The calves are fed pasture and hay (no grain) for a couple of months. By following the cows in pasture they get the bacteria needed to digest roughages and to develop their rumens. They will then be able to put the grain to good use for growing. Everhart is careful not to have the calves follow the yearlings in the pasture rotation in order to avoid parasite problems.

McCrory discussed organic standards in Vermont, which differ somewhat from ours at this point. For example, the whole herd must have organic feed from birth. Our standards will have the same requirement by 2002. McCrory also brought some interesting handouts, including an article called “Getting Calves Started,” written by Lee Anderson for The Organic Broadcaster. It began with the quote from dairy nutritionist Dan Leiterman: “If you look at a calf, it is going to mirror the management, mirror the environment, mirror the nutrition, mirror the immune system, mirror the cow’s production, and mirror the soils.” In addition to addressing the absolute necessity of having good biological activity in the farm soil to produce healthy animals, the article also addresses feeding calves. Anderson makes a big point about feeding the calves colostrum, milk or milk replacer at a temperature between 102 and 105 degrees. Below that temperature, the fat globules get bigger and are more difficult for the calves to digest. Leiterman also states that the whole esophagus, from the tongue on down, acts as a sensor. A temperature less than 100 degrees is sensed as not being Mom’s milk, and a butterfly valve like a groove at the bottom of the esophagus will direct the milk to the wrong stomach compartment. The result would be improper digestion and possible scours.

Another section of the article discusses the use of grains for calf feed. Calves are built to digest milk the first four weeks of life, says Leiterman. They do not even have a high level of amylase, an enzyme needed to digest corn, until at least four or five weeks of age. Oats, barley and wheat are more digestible for calves.

Another article that McCrory distributed is “Rearing Dairy Calves,” by Vaughan Jones. Among the highlights of this article is the fact that the magnesium concentration in the cow’s diet in the last three weeks of the dry period is very important for successful calving, as is the condition of the cow. Fat cows have more difficulties with milk fever after freshening. If your cow is fat, you are also spending too much feeding her.

Jones is a proponent of group housing for calves, since this minimizes labor costs and teaches the calves to compete, as they will have to do as adults. If a calf cannot survive in a calf group, then it will have difficulty staying healthy in your herd. It pays to know this early so that you can cull the calf before you spend a lot of time and money raising it. Jones suggests getting calves out to pasture within a week of birth, weather permitting. He believes that grass and exercise encourage a healthy calf, with the idea of the calf getting microflora to digest grass from following the adult cows in pasture.

A good measure of calf health is weight at weaning: A Holstein calf should be about 75 pounds, a Jersey 65; and a Jersey Holstein cross about 70 pounds. The calf’s weight at weaning is a good indicator of the size it will be at adulthood.

Jones’ article has many other valuable bits of information. Please contact the office if you would like a copy.

Another article on the same subject is “A New Approach To Calf Rearing” from Organic Farming. This article is about a farm in Finland that allows its cows to take responsibility for early raising. The cows are kept with the calf in a pen for the first week after freshening. Then the cow and calf go back to the free stall. The calf follows the cow everywhere, even into the parlor. This arrangement is continued for the first three or four weeks. Then the calves and cows are separated, and the calves are put into groups. If they are kept together longer, the calf is at a weak stage in its immune system and more serious problems are encountered. The methods used on the Finnish farm reduced labor, reduced mastitis, and reduced somatic cell counts, while they improved calf health. All of these benefits helped counter the loss in milk production. The farmer, Cecilia Rydbeck, calculated the loss to be about 2-1/2 gallons each day the first two weeks and 4 gallons each day for the second two weeks.

On the lighter side, an article in the Maine Potato News is entitled “Research Shows Grazing is Good For Dairy Cows.” That is quite a revelation. Actually the article says that cows fed on pasture have a higher level of conjugated linoleic acid (a fat the nutritionists are saying is good for us).

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