bottle calves

We’ve been wanting to get a couple steers to raise for meat again, so last week when a friend told us about a local dairy farm that was selling off a bunch of calves, I jumped.

Originally we thought we’d get two calves, but then my husband pointed out that if we were already bottle feeding two, what was two more? We could sell the extra steers after a few months. But then we learned that the farm occasionally sells heifer calves and a few of us thought it might be fun, a couple years from now, to experience death by milk, glug-glug. However, when we got to the farm, they didn’t have any available heifer calves, so, thinking we’d get a heifer calf later, we got only three males.

Though now that we’re home and up to our eyeballs in calf poop and milk bottles, I’m thinking three calves might be plenty enough right now?

On the other hand, maybe we should go back for a heifer calf? We’re kind of leap first, look later people, so this is probably the only way we’d ever actually take on a milk cow. Besides, it’s not like we’d have to breed and milk her. We’d have two years to think it over, and we could always change our minds, right? Right?

Sidenote: At the farm, the owner took a good look at my daughter and said, “You look familiar. Do I know you?” We puzzled over possible connections for a few seconds, and then it dawned on me: the relief sale! Our daughter is the poster child for the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale, and her face is plastered everywhere.

Anyway, moving along….

The calves are crosses between Brown Swiss and Holstein. With their long, spindly legs and high rumps, they’re a lot bigger than I thought they’d be, and they’re encouragingly active. Heavy, too.

Even though we checked to make sure each of the calves had a good suck at the farm, once we got them home, we had trouble getting them to take the bottle. Only one kept at it, sucking and sucking and sucking, but without taking in hardly any milk. Then my daughter enlarged the nipple holes with a knife and — schlurp — down went the milk. Suddenly they were buzzing all over the shed, chewing on our pant legs and butting us in the butts. It was like they’d just had a shot of caffeine.

I bought enough frozen colostrum for two feedings per calf, but then later I read that calves are only capable of absorbing the antibodies up to 36 hours after birth, so, since two of the three calves were two days old — and since at the farm, they’d already given them each three quarts of the colostrum — buying the stuff was probably a waste of money.

But on the bright side: when pouring the colostrum into the kettle to heat it up, I spilled an alarming amount, sending a bunch of the thick, creamy liquid cascading down between the counter and the stove, so we had to pull the stove out from the wall and scrub everything down so now my kitchen is just that much cleaner, yay.

We’re all a little paranoid about the calves getting scours (i.e. deadly diarrhea), so we’re obsessively watching their poos. We’ve read up on home remedies (doses of pectin mixed with water, adding a raw egg to their milk, etc), and my daughter gave them vitamin injections and is keeping their shed clean and dry, but really, we have no idea what we’re doing. We’re just winging it.

Wish us luck!

This same time, years previous: lemony mashed potato salad, what they talked about, the quotidian (9.14.15), the quotidian (9.16.13), cinnamon sugar breadsticks, whole wheat jammies.


  • Eldon

    As Im sure you are aware, we had at least one cow for most of my childhood and I can tell you a few things to be prepared for:

    1) If the cow is producing and you have removed the calf (we always did a few days after it was born) then there is no such thing as going on spontaneous trips. A cow is an anchor, keeping you at home unless you are incredibly lucky and have a neighbor that knows how to milk.

    2) Get a Jersey!!! I cannot stress this enough. Holsteins are HUGE and produce a massive amount of milk. Plus they are HUGE. Jerseys are lovely, very well tempered animals, small enough that you can literally push them around if needed, and they wont produce 6 gallons of milk a day. This also means less time milking every morning and evening. Additionally, Jerseys have a very high fat content in their milk, so that means you will get a lot of cream (depending on when in the cycle, it may be as much as 25% of the overall production) and that means home made butter! Oh man do I miss that butter.

    3) Milking is a skill that takes practice and patience. However, it is also therapeutic, because whoever is doing the milking will be required to sit, usually alone, beside a cow for at least half an hour, morning and evening. I am confident in saying that that quiet alone time is one of the major factors in how my father survived having 6 loud, opinionated and busy children. Milking was his chance for some zen, and it served him well.

    4) I agree with the above comment on getting an older cow first. If they are broken in and used to being milked it is MUCH easier to learn on them. Learning how to milk on a cow that is learning how to be milked is about as difficult as it gets. It can be done, ask my dad, but as with most things, having one of the two partners starting out with experience is generally a recipe for a better learning curve.

    5) Be prepared for fly season. The summer months when flies are the worst, we would often have to go out to the barn and chase flies off the cow while my dad milked so she would stand still and not continually swat him with her tail. Flies are the worst! I do think a fan would have helped but having a kid stand there and chase the flies was cheaper and thus we had to do it.

    6) Having fresh, raw milk, like eggs, will make you many friends. We often had 2 cows going at once and usually had more than we needed, so we had friends who bought the extra, happily. I would kill to have access to that sort of thing today! Plus, you can make all sorts of things like puddings and ice cream and yogurt… its amazing to have an almost unlimited supply of free high quality milk.

    Finally, if you are serious about getting a cow, talk to my dad. He will be able to give you a massive amount of advice on how to prepare, how to set up a milking stall, where to get the amazing stainless steel milking buckets he used (he may even have one to give to you since he no longer has a cow), as well the best procedures for straining and chilling the milk when you are done milking, and more. You might even be able to convince him to come down and teach you when you finally get a cow to milk.

    Good luck!

  • Margo

    I always adored calf-feeding time at my uncle's farm! But all the rest of it that you're explaining, wow I am not a farmer. Good luck!!

  • farm buddy

    I have raised lots of calves and would be happy to help if you need someone to talk to. You are right to worry about scours. If possible, feed them small meals three or four times a day instead of just twice a day. I raise beef cattle now, but I have one Ayrshire cow that I milk out in the field twice a day. If you haven't milked a cow before, it might be a good idea to buy an older cow that you can tell is easy to hand milk. A first-calf heifer can be very difficult to hand milk as their teats are often very small, plus they are unfamiliar with being milked. You can also get away with once a day milking if you keep the cow's calf around. For example, you can lock the calf away from mom at night and get your own milk in the morning. Then let the calf remain with mom during the day. This works really, really well. Good luck! If you need help, email me at gracyfarm[at]

  • Crystal

    Wow! This is exactly why I am so ready to move out of suburbia and get some land! This is so cool.
    Looking forward to your updates. Good luck!

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