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Nurse cow

Who’s Milking the Dairy Cows?

Nurse cow

by Ryan Heinen | In America’s Dairyland and across the country, the sight of milk cows grazing in pasture has become uncommon. The exception is certified organic dairy farms, where grazing must provide at least 30% of a cow’s feed during the grazing season. This summer you may have noticed the small herd of milk cows grazing in the pastures near the Gwenyn Hill dairy barn. Recently, an even rarer sight can be seen in these pastures: dairy calves nursing on their mothers.

The dairy cows on Gwenyn Hill Farm are not being milked twice a day, like most dairy farms. They are being milked five or six times a day. I am not milking them; the calves are! Each milk cow is raising her own calf, and because milk cows produce more milk than one calf can drink, each cow has been given another calf to raise. This system is known as raising calves on nurse cows. This is efficient from a labor standpoint, as twice-daily feeding of calves is eliminated.

The Many Benefits of Raising Dairy Calves on Nurse Cows

The calves tend to be healthier and grow more quickly, being less prone to sickness. They are also more socialized, learning their place in the hierarchy of the herd. They learn from their adopted mothers which plants to choose while grazing. I use a different call when moving the cows to the barn or to a new pasture. The calves are also learning the meaning of each call.

The system does require some necessary work to be successful. Within a few days after a cow has a calf, I purchase a second calf that is near the same age as the first. As I introduce the new calf to the cow, I watch to see if she will accept it and let it nurse. If she does, all I need to do is put them together for a few days to make sure the calf continues to drink and the cow continues to accept the calf. This fall, two of the four cows reacted this way to their adopted calves.  

Some Cows Are Better Nurse Cows Than Others

The other two cows were more challenging and did not instantly accept the new calves. When I first introduced the new calves, the cows did not want to let them nurse and would kick them away or push them down. While this might seem cruel to us, it’s an instinct the cow sometimes shows to protect her milk for her own calf.

In these cases, I held the cow in a pen with the calves each morning and night. I made sure the calves could nurse, as I prevented the cows from kicking or pushing the calves away. After doing this for about a week, the cows gradually allowed the calves to drink. It also helped that over the first week each calf got stronger and more persistent in its attempts to drink.

It’s interesting to see how one of the cows really seems to enjoy watching over all the calves. Not all dairy cows are cut out to be nurse cows. If we were milking these cows, I would choose to milk the ones that are poor nurse cows and have only the best nurse cows raise calves.  

As we at Gwenyn Hill Farm explore how we might include dairy in our future farm plans, I am very happy with this system of raising dairy calves. I look forward to calf chores, and I watch as these calves develop into a strong and healthy future dairy herd.

-When not busy with calf chores, Ryan Heinen is the Land and Livestock Manager for Gwenyn Hill Farm

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