Dairy Cows Series: 1
(This is the first post in a series devoted to dairy cows. I have had a few years of experience with all the basic phases of naturally raising and milking Jersey cows. At least part of it will be in a question/ answer format. Hopefully someone will find this series helpful!)
Separating Mama from JR.
Since we got our first milking cow, separating the cow from the calf has been an important part of farm life. The routine is simple- or so it seems. During the first part of a cow's lactation, when she's giving the most milk (for a very good cow, this could be up to a year or more) she needs to be milked out every 12 hours or so. The calf also needs milk to grow. There are two basic methods to accomplish both feeding the calf, and yet get enough milk for one's needs. The first is the approach taken by the dairy industry, and also many small farmers. This is to permanently separate the calf from it's mother at birth, and bottle- feed it so that it gets the nutrition it needs. (Or you could turn it into veal, but I don't really like that option.) The other basic method is a little more complicated-sounding, but is actually more freeing than being tied to 2 milkings per day, and feeding a hungry calf. This is to separate it from the mama for 12 hours, milk, then put it with her for another 12 hours, then separate again. (So, if you want to milk in the morning, you would separate them at night, say, around 7 o'clock, then milk at around 7 the next morning, and turn the calf loose with mama all day. Then, at around 7 PM, you would separate them again, and the cycle goes on.) In this way you don't have to bottle- feed, yet get plenty of milk. Also, mama and baby have a closer tie than if they are separated at birth, and so if you go on vacation or something, you just pop Jr. in with Mama, and don't have to worry about milking. The only downside is that you don't get quite as much milk, but this can be overcome by doing two milkings per day- just leave a little milk in each time for baby so it doesn't take all day to get what she needs.
Question: Why do you have to separate the poor hungry little thing from its mother?
Answer: Well, most people say that a calf is a baby cow, but it is actually a small pig on long legs. In other words, within about a week of birth, the little rascal has the ability to drink nearly, if not quite, all the milk your cow is producing. So, if you want to get any milk, you will need to limit the calf's consumption, and this is done by separating the two animals.
Question: Will there be a lot of mooing (bawling) when I separate them?
Answer: Yes. Bawling mamas and babies are a part of life for dairy cows, but they usually get over it pretty quickly. The older they are, and more used to the routine, the quicker they get over it, but the first time they calve it can be pretty noisy for awhile.
Question: What can I do to reduce the bawling? Should I put the cow and calf close together?
Answer: If your goal is to reduce bawling, then I would either put them right next to each other, with just a simple (sturdy) wire or board fence between, or put them as far apart as possible. When they are fairly close together, they constantly remind each-other that they are separated- at least, that's how it was with our cows. (Here's how the conversation goes: "Mom!" "Yes dear!" "I want YOU!" "ME TOOOO!" Pause. Later that night: "Mom! You still awake?" "Of course!" "I'm hungry!" "I miss you tooooo!" Another pause. "Mom?!!" "Yes darling?" "I'm sad!!!" And on it goes- all night long.) If they are separated by a hundred yards or so, they have to bawl loudly enough to carry that distance, and into the house where you are trying to sleep. If they are right next to each other, then the volume doesn't have to be quite as high. If you put them further apart, they can, and at first, will, carry this conversation on long-distance, before they eventually give up. Basically, at first, and especially with a first- timer, they will carry on for a while.
Question: Okay, so I know that putting them close together won't solve the problem, but how close/ far apart should they be?
Answer: Well, this will sound contradictory, but for some cows, you can put them close together, and that will help the bawling. You basically have to go on a case-by-case basis. The first two times we had cows freshen (two different cows) we kept the mama up in our neighbor's pasture. With Suzy, our black Jersey, we had to keep the calf in a smaller paddock adjoining the pasture. I don't clearly remember how much bawling went on then, but I don't think it lasted too long. This was Suzy's second calf though, so she'd already had some experience. Then Blossom freshened. We kept her calf in our small home pasture, and she stayed in the neighbor's pasture again. This was her first time calving, and she had to be broken in to milk, as well as get used to being separated from her calf. She jumped the fence regularly for a week or two (it was a rather flimsy barbed-wire one), and came to visit her calf in the barn stall. This frequent visiting of course didn't help her to learn that she just needed to give up and submit to being separated, but she eventually got the point. The second (most recent) time she freshened, it was a piece of cake separating them. We just took her out of the pasture and tethered her (NOT recommended unless your cow is used to it- some cows have been known to panic and break their necks trying to return to JR.) There was a little crying on each side, but that was it. She calls out in the mornings when we bring her back to milk her, and Buttercup answers, but other than that, there has been very little noise. If you are concerned about the noise level though, put mama away from the house, if possible, because she has a bigger set of lungs, and a louder voice than baby, so it's harder to get to sleep if she's bawling outside the window than if the calf is. They'll bawl no matter what at first, so sometimes it's just a matter of how to lower the noise level.
Here is my personal recommendation for if you are building pens, pasture, etc, and plan to separate part-time: Build a small pen or stall, anywhere in size from 1 acre or so, to 10' x 10'. This is for the calf. Turn the cow out at night into a large pasture, or tether her if that's what she's used to. She will graze at night, so if you lock her up in the smaller area, she gets less food, which means less milk.
Separate them little by little
When first separating though, it may be wise to do it by degrees. If you have a very easy-going cow, you may be able to completely separate from the calf right away, but with a first timer, or not-so-calm cow, it will probably go best if you start training her in the daytime. Remove either her or the calf to a nearby area, and observe them for a while. At first they will probably be quite distressed. After a while, put them together again. Then, a few hours later, pull one of them out, and keep them separated for a little longer. Do this as many times as necessary. The basic idea is to teach her that it's no big deal being apart- she'll return soon.
The main reason you supervise, at least part of this time, is that some cows become very panicky when separated, and lose their heads. Running up and down the fence and calling are fine. Trying to jump the fence, or other radical behavior is not good. Try to distract her with a bucket of food- in fact, it is probably a good idea to do that before you pull out the calf.
Basically, every cow is different. You will have to figure out the best program for your cow, but don't panic because she is distressed when separated from her baby. It's natural, and eventually she will learn to accept it. Later on, the conversation between mama and Jr. will go something more like this: "Mom! I'm hungry again!" "Go to sleep dear, there's nothing to worry about." "But mom! I miss you!" "I miss you too, but I'll see you in the morning... Good night!"