The Dairy Farm Adventures: Happy heifers

Posted Tuesday, January 28, 2014 in Features

The Dairy Farm Adventures: Happy heifers

by Lee-Rae Jordan Oliver

For the first three years of our dairy operation, Matthew and I bought pregnant heifers from a knowledgeable dairy farmer, Dale Hall from Skowhegan, Maine.  Within a couple of weeks after their arrival, the heifers would give birth and the milk would flow.  By our fourth year, Matthew knew it was time to start raising our own heifers to build our herd and to replace cull cows.  This meant we'd keep and raise any female calves born on our farm instead of selling them.

My first question was, “Where will we shelter the calves?”

“We'll keep them in the wood shed for the summer and move them to the greenhouse when it's finished this fall,” replied Matthew.

The wood shed would protect the calves from the rain and shade them from the sun.  The north and south ends would be open, providing plenty of air flow.  With trepidation, I agreed to this short-term plan on the condition that the animals were cleared out in time for me to fill the shed with twenty-four cords of wood.   

Spring calving season started and the wood shed soon housed over twenty calves.   My time was completely consumed with being the “Director of Homeland Security,” tending to the demands of our three children ages one, three, and five.  While Matthew was busy from dawn till dusk milking twice a day and cutting and baling hay throughout the summer months, I was busy managing the household duties.  We hired two young gentlemen to help with field work and barn chores, so I assumed all bases were covered until one day I went to the shed in mid-summer to check the wood supply. 

Upon entering the wood shed, my eyes were drawn to the walls which were crawling with the black bodies of stable flies.  The unclean calf pens were the source of the fly infestation.  At first glance, the pens appeared to be clean because they were covered with fresh shavings.  However, underneath the top layer were several inches of soiled bedding.  A composted bed pack in which a new layer of bedding is frequently spread on top of an old layer works well throughout the winter months when everything freezes, but during the hot, humid summer months it creates an unhealthy environment for animals and a haven for flies.   Determined to remedy the situation, I made arrangements for child care so I could muck out the pens.       

Wearing shorts, a tank top, gloves, and knee-length rubber boots, I entered the first calf pen and began pitch forking the heavy, saturated bedding into a wheelbarrow.  The stench was overwhelming and made my eyes water.  I breathed through my mouth to avoid smelling the noxious fumes.   After depositing countless  full wheelbarrows into the manure pile, I spread fresh shavings into each pen and sprayed each calf with insect repellent.  My reward was watching the calves curl up comfortably on their clean beds.  By the end of the summer, the calves were transferred to the newly erected greenhouse.

This group of heifers had their first calves in the spring of 2013.  The heifers were healthy, but their small size resulted in some difficult births.   During a routine pregnancy check in October, we learned from our veterinarian, Simon, that only half of the young cows we raised from birth were pregnant.   Much to our disappointment, this meant they would be culled from our herd.  On the bright side, Dale bought eight of our young cows with the intention of trying to breed them back on his farm in Skowhegan.   Having an abundance of feed and a longer pasture season in southern Maine made it economically feasible for him to keep them longer than we could.  It was difficult to see these young, first-time mothers leave our farm.  They were all calm, gentle, and trusting of us, barely lifting a leg from the first day they were milked.   I am hopeful they will be bred and become valuable members of Dale's dairy herd.

This past year, we kept over twenty-five female calves to raise.  From day one, I made sure the calves received the best possible care we could provide them.  I knew the future of our dairy farm rested in raising healthy, hardy heifers.   The children took ownership in helping to care for the calves by giving them special names such as “Snow White,” “Spray,” “Ghost,” and “Katahdin.”  The children helped bottle feed the calves milk, and gave them water, hay, and grain as the calves grew older.  The calf pens were mucked out bi-weekly by myself and Nick, a hard-working young gentleman I hired to help me for the summer.  The calves were exclusively fed cows milk instead of milk replacer which reduced the number of sick calves to nearly zero.  The heifers grew in leaps and bounds throughout the summer and fall months.  Like a proud mother, I exclaimed, “These were the best heifers I'd ever seen.” 

This winter the heifers live in the thirty by sixty foot side shed attached to our main barn.  It's open on the south side and sheltered from the elements to the north, east, and west.   Bill, our dependable employee has helped me keep the side shed clean by pushing the manure out with the skid steer.  The calves learned our routine quickly and knew when to run into the main barn and wait until their home had fresh bedding.  They happily returned to their clean house romping and  kicking their heels.  Throughout the cold stretches of weather, they sleep on a composted bed pack which works beautifully in the winter.   The heat generated from the composting process acts like a giant heating blanket, keeping the calves warm even when wind chill temperatures drop to thirty below zero.      

When I feed the calves every morning and night, I always check to make sure each calf is eating her grain.  One morning, I noticed a calf named, “Blunt,” standing off by herself, not participating in the breakfast festivities.  Right away, I saw her left side was swollen to the size of a beach ball.  I told Matthew we had a sick calf, and we quickly moved her to a solitary pen in the greenhouse so we could tend to her.  Matthew called Simon to find out what to do.  He explained how to snake a tube down her throat and into her stomach to release the trapped gas.  Within minutes of tubing Blunt, her bloated stomach returned to its normal size, and she felt relieved enough to eat and drink.  For the next few days, Blunt endured this uncomfortable procedure each time she blew up like a balloon . We have no idea what caused her to bloat, but after the first week, her overall health began to improve.  She lived like a queen in her private pen for two months before I was confident she could return to her herd mates.  She's been fine ever since.

On a small family dairy farm, everyone must contribute his or her skills to make the operation run smoothly.  My motherly instincts are programmed to nurture, so raising a herd of heifers is a natural fit for me.  When faced with an arduous chore, farmers don't hem and haw, hoping someone else will do the job for them.  They simply roll up their sleeves and tackle the task themselves.  I have to believe my hours of sweat will be rewarded, and this herd of heifers will become productive and fertile members of our dairy herd.  The longevity of our farm depends on my success as a herdswoman.      

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