It’s been almost a year since we re-started the final part of our ethical food project – leaving the calves with their mums but still milking them once-a-day. It would be safe to say that it has lived up to expectation. Yes, it has been a pretty tough year.
It all started well enough with the first calves born outside in fine settled weather. No worries. We were rocking! By the second week of November the grass was gone and weather cold and wet. We brought them all indoors. It was probably after a further 10 cows had calved that we noticed some of the calves suffering from severe diarrhoea and becoming de-hydrated. So began a two-month battle with a very nasty stomach bug called cryptosporidium.
We had never experienced anything like this when we’d reared the calves on buckets of milk separate from their mothers. We were on the back foot from the word go, playing catch-up. Stressful and depressing. I can’t begin to describe it. Despite our best veterinary interventions, we lost quite a few calves and I vowed that the experiment would be stopped.
We had 10 cows still to calve before Christmas and on the vet’s advice, I’d bought a steam cleaner for the calving pens and a colostrum management system to ensure plenty of top quality colostrum – the cow’s first milk – got into the calf soon after birth. The cows duly calved and we followed the vet’s advice. None of those calves suffered the disease. Was it a fluke?
With much apprehension we approached the next calving period in March. Would the system work? With much relief, it did. A glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel?
By this time the November calving cows had passed peak milk yield and were in slow decline but the calves were drinking ever greater amounts. By the end of month 4 we were getting about 5 litres and the calf was drinking 25! This despite us separating them overnight. During the fifth month after calving and when the calves had grown to around ¼ tonne in weight (!), we increased the period of separation until one day they weren’t re-united. The following night there was uproar! Thankfully it only lasted the day. The cows and their calves could still see each other and touch noses. But the calves couldn’t suckle. They had had access to solid food over this period and quickly adapted to the new order of things without slowing their phenomenal rate of growth. And we had milk again!
To be continued... Calving starts again in 2 weeks time.....