My favorite part of visiting a dairy farm is to go and play with the baby calves. These sweet little babies are so friendly and curious. In high school, I showed beef cattle and they definitely weren’t interested in being petted or loved on. Dairy calves are so welcoming and unafraid of people because they are used to being taken care of by loyal farmers who tend to them.
Here’s a step by step of how calves are born and raised.
Step one: A baby is born (above: calf at Kuehnert Dairy Farm in Fort Wayne, Indiana)
Birth on a dairy farm is a very common occurrence, but no less a miracle. Some dairy farms have a “seasonal” calving–most or all of their babies born in the springtime–most farms calve year round. (A mother cow giving birth is called “calving.”) Cows about to give birth are normally kept in a maternity ward area with clean, soft bedding so a cow can be as comfortable as possible during birth. The baby calf will be safe and warm.
Most cows give birth on their own, but sometimes they need help. The farmer will step in to help with a breach birth or anytime labor takes longer than it should. The cow will often clean off the calf, although not all mothers are as attentive. In the picture above, the mostly-white cow is the mother, while the mostly-black cow is just coming to welcome the new arrival. The farmer will step in and clean off the calf if the mother doesn’t show an interest.
Step two: Baby’s first bottle (above: the cutie pie calf above lives a All-Wright Farms in Muncie, Indiana)
It’s very important for baby calves to get colostrum–the mother’s first milk–as a way to build up their immunity. Like all mammals, calves are born with very low immunity that can be immediately increased by the antibodies in their mother’s first milk, which is called “colostrum.” Mother cows make colostrum for 24 hours after a baby is born, so the farmer will milk the mother and give the baby a bottle of colostrum to make sure the calf drinks enough to be healthy. Some mother cows don’t produce enough colostrum, or it isn’t high enough quality, so farmers can feed colostrum from another cow to make sure every baby has the best chance to grow up strong. Baby calves also need to be taken to a safe, warm place where they are protected from other cows and from any germs the bigger cows may have. Calves are kept in groups of similar ages or in warm individual pens or hutches, depending on the farm. Calves kept in individual pens or hutches will only stay there for a few weeks, until they are moved to a group pen with other young animals.
Step three: Constant TLC (the stylishly attired Jersey calf (above right) lives at Knollbrook Farm in Goshen, Indiana)
Baby calves, like any young animal (or any preschool kid!), are more vulnerable to picking up germs and getting sick, so farmers take every precaution to keep babies well-fed, dry, warm, and clean. In the winter time, babies can even wear little jackets (like the brown calf above) to keep warm. Calves are kept in areas with lots of clean straw or other bedding so they can snuggle up for their frequent naps (they are babies, after all!).
Calves get bottle-fed at least twice a day, like these babies above at Troxel Dairy Farm in Hanna, Indiana. Some farms even have computerized calf feeders where babies can eat whenever they’d like (like the calf below, at Sommer Dairy Farm in Berne, Indiana).
The way farms take care of their calves varies slightly, but all farmers are dedicated to making sure their baby calves grow up strong and healthy. These calves are the result of intricate breeding programs, picking bulls and cows that will make the best calves possible–just like pedigree dogs.
Most farms have “cow families” that date back generations, with the current farmer’s grandfather probably owning the great-great-great-grandmothers of the cows on the farm today. Baby calves are the future of any farm and they must be nurtured. Raising healthy calves is a goal on any farm.
Do you have any questions about baby calves? Ask in the comments section and I’ll get back to you!