Training New Nurse Cows

Sidehill Farm News

Training New Nurse Cows

As of today, the calf count stands at 4 bulls, and finally, 2 heifers! That leaves 8 more cows to calve by the end of March, and then we are all going to sit down and fall asleep with our faces in our dinner plates. Yep, calving season is a big push - not because our cows have trouble calving, but it just requires a little extra cow management, and a lot of extra vigilance. When do we start training pregnant heifers to the parlor? Is it enough time for her to learn before she calves? When will she really calve? Do we put her in a calving pen tonight? Should I get up at 1:00am and go to the barn and check on her? Is the calf coming out in the right orientation? Did the calf figure out how to nurse? Did it get enough colostrum? And of course, this calving season we felt we all just didn’t have enough work, so we are taking on the project of training a few new nurse cows.

It was very early on in our dairy farming careers that we discovered that while calves are super cute, they are also very strong, and sometimes really stubborn. Bottle feeding a calf is an enchanting activity - they are furry and soft and really really love you with their whole wiggly charming self, for just as long as the bottle is full.

When the bottle is empty, however, instinct kicks in. If you have ever watched a calf nurse on it’s mother, you notice that the way a calf gets her mom to let her milk down is to slam it’s bony little head into the side of mom’s udder. To a cow, apparently, this is appealing, and she lets her milk down. To a person, who is holding the bottle at approximately crotch height in order to get the bony calf head in the right position for drinking, this is NOT appealing. I’m sure there is a calculation somewhere on the internet for figuring the force transferred from calf head to bottle to human pubic bone, but you know, it just doesn’t matter. It hurts, and you say bad words. 

So after bottle-feeding approximately, oh, let’s say ONE calf, the enchantment has completely worn off, and you start looking for another solution. Stage 2 was a milk bar - essentially a bucket with nipples sticking out of the sides. You pour milk in, the calves drink. No crotches involved. This system is pretty good, but it means you still need to warm up the milk, carry it out to the calf pen in bucket, pour it in, go back to the milkroom, refill the bucket with warm water, carry it back out to the calf pen, stand there until the milk is gone, pour in the warm water so the calves keep sucking on the milk bar instead of each other, retrieve the milk bar (pouring warm milky water all over yourself in the process), and wash the milk bar. There must be an easier way.

Then we discovered these amazing devices called “cows”. They are full of milk, walk into the calf pen under their own power, and enjoy having calves slam their bony heads into their udders. Whoever invented these things was a genius. But not all cows like to nurse calves. Cows seem to come on a sliding scale of maternal instinct that ranges from “ALL of these calves are MINE!”, down to “I have no idea what that creature is trying to do to me, but GET IT FAR AWAY!” So we have a select team of nurse cows - extremely maternal cows that love to raise calves. Giant Baby, Princess, and Edith have been heading up the nurse cow team for several years now, and they are true professionals. But unfortunately, both Giant Baby and Princess are near the end of their lactations right now, and are not making enough milk to feed calves. Edith just calved yesterday morning, with a beautiful little heifer calf who looks just like her sister Esther, born almost exactly 2 years ago. (We’re thinking her name might be Esmerelda.) But part of the reason that Edith is a nurse cow is that she only has two functioning teats - the other two have stopped making milk. She can only nurse two calves. Time to recruit a new nurse cow.

Now training a new nurse cow is not the most fun you’ve ever had. Even if a cow is very maternal, she will often only want to nurse her own calf at first, and will kick disturbingly accurately at the heads of the others. We’ve found that a few days of tying her head up, combined with scratching that special spot right next to her tailhead, and of course, a little treat of organic grain solves the problem. But it takes two people several days of working with them to get both cows and calves comfortable, and since you are working underneath the cow, showing little calf snouts the right spot, your hands get kicked a lot, and you get pooped on. Usually right down the back of your neck. Inside your turtleneck. Fun.

So that’s the project for the week. We’ve chosen Nina, who has always been very maternal. Her udder is very low, which makes her difficult to milk in the parlor, but calves don’t care about that - they’re short. So it’s a win-win if she decides she likes it. And so far, she’s been great. We had one round of kicking and pooping and running around the nursing pen, but we have one determined little bull calf who wouldn’t quit. When he finally caught up with her and latched on to a teat, she stopped dead, opened her eyes really really wide, and let him nurse.  We brought a second calf in, and apparently that was one calf too many for the first day, but it was progress. Then we milked her in the parlor, and fed her milk to those calves, (with the milk bar - crotch insurance) so they would smell like her. The next milking, she stood still for two calves, only kicking a little when one punched her udder. This morning she was outside the calf pen mooing for the calves before we even let her in! Tomorrow we try three calves, and maybe don’t tie her head. We keep pinching ourselves - even Giant Baby and Princess weren’t this easy to train! 

We will probably need one more nurse cow for this calving, depending on how many heifer calves we decide to keep. We have our eye on Crumpet, who is calving later in March. We just hope that new nurse cows aren’t like kids - if the first one is a dream, the second one is the payback. We’ll be sure to let you know.