Raising Cattle with a Bit of Forethought One Key to Calf Health

Before raising calves, consider all the factors before starting in.

| March/April 2010

  • Calf Lying on Straw
    Clean straw makes excellent bedding for a young calf.
    iStockphoto.com/Cynthia Baldauf
  • Four Calves Enjoying Lush Pasture
    Lush green pasture makes healthy calves.
    iStockphoto.com/Verity Johnson
  • Young Calf at Rest
    Young calves spend a lot of their day sleeping.
  • Feeding Young Calf
    For the first month and until they're eating a pound of calf starter pellets a day, milk replacer is the most important and most expensive item you'll be feeding the calves.
    iStockphoto.com/Robert Churchill
  • Highland Momma Cow and Calf
    Highland cows make excellent mothers and their calves are robust, but a horned breed might not be the best to begin with for bottle feeding.
    iStockphoto.com/James Whittaker
  • Young White Haltered Calf
    This spotted calf has been trained to the halter.
    iStockphoto.com/Anita Strizzoli
  • Newborn Calf with Mother
    A bonding moment between a mother and her newborn calf.
  • Gritty Bottle-feeds a Calf
    Gritty prefers to let the mother cow raise calves, but in special circumstances he goes above and beyond when it comes to bottle-feeding. You might even say over the top.
    illustration by Brad Anderson

  • Calf Lying on Straw
  • Four Calves Enjoying Lush Pasture
  • Young Calf at Rest
  • Feeding Young Calf
  • Highland Momma Cow and Calf
  • Young White Haltered Calf
  • Newborn Calf with Mother
  • Gritty Bottle-feeds a Calf

No doubt about it, newborn calves are cute – and their diminutive size makes them easy to like and less intimidating to handle than adult cattle. But calves are complex little creatures, and successfully raising them without their mom is a bit of an art. Whether you’re considering raising calves for meat, milk, pets or as future pasture trimmers, your project will be much more relaxing and rewarding with some forethought and plenty of planning. 

Of breeds and bulls

With scores of cattle breeds out there, it’s probably best to choose your calf based on your specific goals and what’s available in your area, and if you just want to raise some cattle for meat, a beef breed is generally best. Beef calves will bulk up relatively quickly and develop into a marketable animal more readily – but newborn beef calves are often difficult to come by. Dairy calves tend to be lighter and less expensive but will take more time to put on the muscle if you’re planning to butcher. For best success with raising a calf for milk, you should choose a dairy breed – be sure you buy heifer calves and expect them to be more expensive than their brothers.

You’ll have up to three gender choices when seeking a newborn calf. In most instances, you can choose bull (intact male), steer (castrated male) and heifer calves. Bull calves will grow faster than the others, but will be harder to handle as they grow older; mature bulls are a force to be reckoned with during breeding season, so unless you’re planning on breeding the animal, it’s a good idea to ask the seller to handle the castration before you take delivery to save yourself the trouble and/or expense. Steer calves grow almost as quickly as bull calves and are as easy to handle as heifers (sometimes easier).

If your goal is to create a breeding herd of your own or to eventually have a milk cow, then you’ll want to choose a heifer. Keep in mind that the best heifers – both beef and dairy – are not usually those offered for sale as newborn animals because the farmers and ranchers use these animals to replenish their herds or offer them to other farmers and ranchers to enhance their herds. 

Herd mentality

Cattle are herd animals so you’ll want to bring at least two newborn calves to your place; three would be better for herd dynamics and in case one dies (the stress of being taken away from their mothers causes significant stress), the other will have company. Be sure that the calves have had sufficient time with their mothers to get a good dose of colostrum, which will improve their immune systems and get their digestive tracts moving.

Since the fundamental basis of the dairy farm is lactating cows, many dairies have a steady supply of newborn calves to get rid of. In many instances, you can negotiate a very good price if you agree to buy two or three calves at a time. For a dairy, newborn calves only get in the way of producing saleable milk – or take up precious resources by way of milk replacer and labor. In some years, dairy farms give calves away – in others they may charge up to about $75 per calf, depending on the region.



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