Calf Rearing: An Advanced Course

A New Trend in Dairying

More and more dairy farmers are raising heifers on cows for a variety of reasons—a trend we at Dharma Lea Farm are glad to see. As an effective method of improving shipped milk quality, many farmers use cows with high somatic cell counts (SCC) as nurse cows. The recent quota placed on many organic dairy farmers spurred a smart decision to keep more replacements; and, to keep those replacements on cows, either mothers or nurse cows, to stay under quota without selling cows or dumping milk. When we began commercial dairying, we knew that we would not make any real progress (and therefore money) until we raised our replacements on their mothers. Since we have been doing this, the benefits have reached all aspects of our operation. Raising our replacements on their mothers is by far our best investment with the biggest payback.

We tried many methods of calf rearing: bottle feeding, bucket feeding, grain, buckets with nipples, and nurse cows . . . We never lost a calf, and by general standards our calves always grew extremely well and looked extremely healthy. Having raised calves on cows in earlier years, however, we always knew there was something better. The overall health of our replacements was truly at the back of our minds, pushing us to make the switch back. But it was the need for less work that actually got us to go back to raising our replacements on their mothers in our commercial dairy.

We never liked feeding the calves. It was a pain in the neck, and it added so much time to daily chores that we almost dreaded it. We could never find reliable help so that we could pass the job off. No one else cared enough to be sure the milk was the right temperature, and the bottle was at the right height, etc. We knew that only one “individual” could raise our replacements and could actually do it far better than we could: their own mothers. They even wantedthe job, to boot.

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Cows Raising the calves is financially rewarding and a lot more fun for everyone involved! Photo by Dietrich Gehring

Our current program for raising replacements consists of using our best cows, each raises her own calf, and only her own calf, for a full ten months.

Cost Benefits
Once we began the switch to raising replacements on their mothers the payback grew exponentially. When we have an entire herd of cows that were raised on their mothers, we will have an entire herd of strong, healthy problem-free, bred cows. Cows raised by their mothers demonstrate impeccable health, performance, and longevity. They grow to have very strong, very predictable heats, and they breed on the first service over and over again. They live a long, healthy life. They are not the cows teetering on the brink of poor health and body condition that we have all become accustomed to and been fooled into believing are “dairy type,” a.k.a. starved from birth, animals. The health and nutrition our cows get in the first ten months set the stage for a lifetime of the same. The benefit of such a strong baseline of health buys a lot of latitude for the rest of their lives and for the rest of the operation: less need for large quantities of top-quality feed, a greater tolerance for temperature extremes, fewer mineral supplement requirements, longevity, steadier milk production, greater reproductive efficiency, and greater feed efficiency.

We have reached a cull rate of 10% annually and need only a few replacements each year. In the first years, making the jump to take the best cows out of our rotation was difficult. We sacrifice one lactation from our best cows for each replacement they give us. We consider the improved health of that replacement will bring many more lactations in her own lifetime, therefore repaying tenfold the loss of her mother’s lactation. When that heifer matures, her predictable, strong heats mean she will never be open and her calving dates will be predictable and accurate.

We place the mother and her calf in a dry cow or bred heifer group. The entire out-of-pocket cost of raising that pair for the year (the heifer will then be about six months from breeding age) is little more than the cost to feed the cow for a year. We wean that heifer as close to pasture time as we can manage, and our out-of-pocket cost continues at zero through the grazing season. Our mothers even pay some of the way by making some extra milk for us to ship—as much as 30 pounds per day in our grainless herd—during the first eight to ten weeks post freshening.

Removing a cow from our production line does not cost any more than feeding that cow.  The cost of feeding that calf is zero, nada—we buy nothing. The value of the milk we would have shipped is minimal when offset by the cost of feed we would have to buy (or bulk tank milk we would have to use) for the calf. To put it another way, we figure that each cow in our dairy herd nets about $250 annually. With the money we are paid for her milk minus feed and overhead costs, and since those costs remain whether she is giving us milk to ship or a replacement heifer, one could say our cost of the yearling replacement is $250. Even as the profitability of our cows increases—as it does each year, especially as we add our more efficient, lower maintenance cows raised on their mothers, and we reach a net profit of even $800 or $1,000 year—it is still a great price for that heifer. Factoring in that we never lose or have to treat a calf for illness and will have years of health benefits, the system is a bargain.

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The VanAmburghs, along with their five children, operate a 90 cow certified organic dairy and 20 cow Devon beef herd. Photo by Dietrich Gehring

Optimum Health and Growth
The rate of gain our replacements obtain in their mothers’ care has astounded us. High-butterfat cows produce the fastest growing, healthiest calves. We have had people tell us that it must be a “breed thing,” because they have seen relatively small and malnourished calves that are of comparable age to ours, and ours truly do almost look like a different animal. It is not a “breed thing”; the breeds we have raised are typical dairy breeds and crosses (Holstein, Fresian/Holstein, Jersey, Ayshire, along with Dutch Belt, Milk Devon, Lineback, and others). Most breeds will reach 600 pounds before weaning age in their mother’s care. The results are not the same with nurse cows, not even with a one-to-one cow-calf ratio. The special relationship between the mother and her calf does not translate to even the most enthusiastic nurse cow. A calf will be healthiest on her own mother’s milk. The milk from a cow matches specifically to her own calf, changing as the calf matures. There is no danger of losing calves to illness; scours and respiratory infection (colds or runny noses) resolve without incident or the need for any intervention.

The colleges tell farmers that the best way to raise replacements is to wean at six or eight (some I have heard even say four) weeks and get the calves on a super-high-protein diet—as high as 44%, complete with grain—and that heifers raised on their mothers will develop fat in their udders that will decrease milk supply later on. However, no one will ever convince us that this is the best way to raise calves now that we have seen the results for ourselves. There is no better food for any young mammal than its own mother’s milk. We do not see “meaty udders” or a decrease in milk supply. Heifers raised on their mothers will get nice fat maiden udders, and we believe that this fat contributes to healthy mammary gland function, which supports milk production, resists mastitis, and very likely improves the quality and nutrition of the milk once she begins producing. As for rumen development, mothers’ milk will provide for full and proper development, including vascularization and capacity. Our calves are super-capacious even at six months old. In addition, the perfect fat in mother’s milk plays an essential role in not only bone development, but also is most important in the developing endocrine system.

Perfect endocrine system development should be the centerpiece of discussions of calf rearing. Generally, debate revolves around rumen and bone development. We focus on the endocrine system development, however, because it governs glandular function and hormone production. These in turn translate into the most important issues for our cows’ production years: lactation and gestation. Let’s face it, we lose money when we feed a cow that is not producing calves and milk; nothing costs a dairyman more than an open cow. Growth, breeding cycles, healthy gestation, and strong lactations are all functions of the endocrine system. And it takes ten months on mother’s milk for the endocrine system to fully develop.

We see the signs of this healthy system and abundant hormone production in adrenal swirls in proper placement between the shoulder blades, thymus swirls that are large and prominent, bald vulva and udders, and clear escutcheons. These characteristics are obvious at weeks old, and this abundant health continues with healthy coats, full development of heart girth, muscle strength, and full, standing heats in animals as young as six months of age.

It should be noted that use of the term “replacements” includes bull calves as well. We raise our bull calves in the same manner so that they will obtain early sexual maturity, strength, stamina, and the very important high sperm count with excellent motility, along with full genetic expression.

Full genetic expression of traits is a very valuable element gained by raising calves this way. As breeders, we strive to improve our herd, a job that cannot be accomplished effectively unless we can see our cows as an expression of their full genetic potential. One cannot properly select the best cows and bulls for improving the herd if one cannot see the full genetic expression of their traits. We believe only cows and bulls raised by their mothers reach full genetic expression.

Practical Applications
Some logistical considerations need to be made, and each farmer will develop his or her own system. Generally, things to consider include the milking setup and how best to isolate the mother and baby that first week, how to keep the calves safe while they are with their mothers in the milking group, where they will go after the first eight weeks, and how you will be breeding back the mothers. About a week of close attention is required as soon as the calf is born to ensure a strong bond between the cow and the calf.  This saves a lot of trouble later in the process. Some pairs don’t need any help, but we have had to foster the relationship between some very new, i.e. first-calf heifers or cows that have never raised a calf before, and some old and tired mothers. Once the calf has bonded well and will not look to another cow for milk, the rest goes very smoothly.

For the first two months we run the calves in and out of our tie stall with their mothers and our other milkers. This imprints the calves to us and to the barn routine and makes them easy to handle throughout their lives. They also become trained to respect our single strand electric wires used for rotational grazing by the time they leave the milking group at eight weeks old. We milk the mothers twice a day, but do not keep the calf from them at all, except to tie them in at milking time so they don’t trash the barn. By about eight weeks post-calving, the calf is drinking all of the mother’s milk, or if it isn’t, the cow is likely loosing weight trying to produce enough milk for everyone. This aggressive push for production in the first two months post-calving seems to be very good for our cows’ udders. We have noticed improved milk production and more complete let-down in subsequent lactations from the cows that have previously raised calves. However, about eight weeks of this heavy production is about the limit before weight loss begins to become a problem, so that is when we send the pair out to pasture to be rotated with the dry cow or bred heifer group.

We feel that having our replacements born in the early spring is a must. Having the calves on grass as soon as possible after they are born is extremely important to us because their mothers will be teaching them to graze at a couple of days old.  Our calves graze and begin chewing their cud at three to five days old. The next year, the spring grass is pivotal once again after weaning. We also try to keep replacements that are close in age (within two months) because the calves will form a very tight bond with each other, and the ability to wean them as a group later is easier on them.

We run a bull with our dairy herd, and as long as we use a mature bull, over 24 months old, we do not have a problem with him breeding heifers while they are in the milking group (up to five or even six months old). A young bull, however, will breed baby heifers.

Once the heifers are ten months old, the mothers return to the milking herd, and the heifers remain with the bred heifer or dry cow group. Weaning is surprisingly easy when a calf is left on its mother until it is ten months old. They call to their mothers on and off for two or three days and then settle down. They do not loose weight, even when weaned in the winter months. We have tried weaning earlier, and it is not only a difficult separation for the calves to make, but they do not thrive as well after they have been weaned. The mothers are brought to the milk herd to be milked once a day and then dried off before calving again.
The most difficult aspect of raising replacements on their mothers is finding the courage to try it. It is not a process without kinks. But if you get started and are determined to make it work, you will never go back to any other method.

Phyllis Van Amburgh and her husband Paul, along with their five children, operate Dharma Lea Farm in Sharon Springs, NY.  Dharma lea produces 100% grass fed milk and meat from a 90 cow certified organic dairy and 20 cow Devon beef herd.  The Van Amburghs welcome your input and can be reached at 518-542-7736 or
You can find the Van Amburgh’s grass-fed milk at Maple Hill Creamery in Little Falls, New York and Grass-fed Beef at Honest Weight and Mohawk Harvest Coop.

Avatar of Paul Van Amburgh

Paul Van Amburgh

Paul Van Amburgh is the owner of Dharma lea farm in Sharon Springs, NY. He can be reached at 518- 284-2546 or at


  1. Avatar of nina gentle nina gentle on February 9, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    do you milk the mothers at all during the time they’re raising their calfs?

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