At Home in Nature

  (Agate, Colorado)
TwoInTents Blog

Vampires and Bottle Calves

Are there vampires?  Some people will say so, especially after seeing some movies.  We have a vampire kept here at the farm.  We keep him locked away from the other animals for their safety.  We urge caution when dealing with him: eat a clove of farm-fresh garlic before working with him.
He is a bottle calf.
Is it cruel to raise bottle calves?  Some people will say so, saying it encourages the dairy industry to produce too many calves (a byproduct of making milk - mother cows won't make milk without a baby to feed) and that it is cruel to take babies from their mothers. 
We don't personally agree with taking calves from their mothers so early, and would not do that to any mother animals of our own.  However, it is also cruel to allow these orphan animals to be without care and not adopt them.  But ultimately, you simply can't discourage the dairy farmers from doing what they do by any means.
A farmer will typically make about the same amount of food off an animal whether they raise it by milk or after it has been weaned: someone has to buy milk for the calf, whether you feed the mother or buy milk replacer.  When the animal is sold after it is weaned, the farmer naturally wants to recover any investment and raises the price to account for food, and the numerous calves that natually die.
Human children rarely die in the United States, but in other nations, they die easily for lack of medicine.  Cattle are the same way, but there is sometimes no medicine for cattle even if a farmer is willing to pay for it.  There is no calve's hospital emergency room (as there is at children's hospital), there is sometimes an inability to diagnose problems.  Even if you give the animals solid shelters where the wind and wet doesn't get in, and plenty of nurses to keep them warm, some calves naturally are loners and will not snuggle up to their nurses when it gets cold for whatever reason; electrification of barns is sometimes impossible in rural areas - at our farm, electricians won't even service us.  When temperatures get sub-zero, the old and the young are going to get sick and die with greater likelihood than in better temperatures.  Winter is a time of trial and death for many animals.  And unfortunate people, too. 
We prefer weanlings when we can get them for a good price, but this is not always an option.  When we buy bottle calves, we try as much as possible to select those that are more obviously at least a few days old, and give them some colostrum when we get them home.  They have free choice hay at first, as well as free choice calf starter grain, and get WARM milk-replacer three and then two times per day. 
We are very careful about weaning.  Calves need to develop their stomachs to be able to digest non-milk foods.  We give them probiotics, mineral and vitamin supplements, and of course the solid foods (hay and starter grain) throughout their first two months, though after the first month they are transitioned to leaves instead of hay.  Clean water is available for all the animals through the day, and although the ducks mess theirs up quickly, there are other sources of clean water in the same pen for the other animals to drink.  We aim to wean them from the milk replacer at about one month, because its most economical, but they are given sufficient calf starter grain for the next two months.  Calf starter grain has all the milk proteins in it that they need for healthy growth, and so as soon as they are ruminating well they are able to eat their milk instead of drinking it.  They get the same nutrition this way, but cheaper and with less time required to feed them. 
Calves will naturally suck on everything in sight for several months, even if you are feeding them well.  Unfortunately, since they don't have a mother, they get their nutrition in a concentrated form and it does not satisfy their psychological drive to nurse through the day.  One of our calves, named Count Dracula, has developed a bad habit of sucking tails until they bleed.  He likes chili pepper to season his meal, and we can think of nothing to distract him.  He used to be pacified by ropes to suck on, but prefers the warm, tit-like tails of his companions and nurses to cold ropes.   Count Dracula is now isolated with a nurse who can withstand his sucking, and we can only hope he learns a new habit.
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