Calves and Sticking Plasters

We’re on milking duty this weekend.  When David does the milking, I feed the calves.  I’ve been doing this for 24 years, and have to admit that it is a bit of a love/hate job.  I’ve no issue with getting up early and I love the calves - it’s carting the 20 litre buckets of milk that is the problem – I feel like  a mule!

Under organic regulations, calves have to be fed whole milk for 3 months.  Each calf gets 5 litres of milk per day, currently we have 52 calves, so that’s 6.5 buckets of milk that have to be carted from the milking parlour to the calf shed every morning and evening.  All 130 paces– I count them every time.

When I first met David, the farm wasn’t organic.  The calves were fed on reconstituted milk substitute.  So that part of the job was so much easier.  All I had to do was put the powder into a bucket, add warm water and whisk – no trudging with heavy buckets.

However, that was the only part of the job that was easier. Before we converted to organic farming, calf health was a major problem on the farm.  Every year many of the calves would develop scour (diarrhoea).  This was caused by rotavirus.  We would treat them with antibiotics and rehydrate them (think Andrews Liver Salts).  Every year we would lose a couple of calves and we’d always have a handful of ne’er-do-wells.  We tried so hard to break the cycle, we always cleaned the calf pens between calving periods, and every day we were meticulous in washing and disinfecting the calf buckets.  We even had a baby’s bottle brush to clean all the bucket teats.  But to no avail.

When we made the decision to go organic, David knew that he would have to crack this problem.  In organic farming, contrary to popular belief you can treat sick animals with conventional medicines, but at the same time you have to develop a plan to reduce the incidence of ill health.  We’d been working with the vet trying to crack rotavirus for over 10 years, so it wasn’t going to be easy.

Amazingly it was easy.  It was really, really easy.  Almost as a last resort, our vet suggested that instead of the calf getting its mother’s colostrum only on the day it was born, that we should give the calves colostrum for at least 10 days.  Like humans, the milk a cow produces in the first few days following birth is thicker than normal milk and contains natural antibodies which will get their offspring off to a healthy start.  Basically we give the calves what nature intended.

And that was the problem solved.  Calves rarely scour, and when they do we give them our magic potion – colostrum.  Occasionally we may need to re-hydrate some and very, very occasionally we will use an antibiotic.  Previously we would have spent about £2000 per year on medicines just to treat calf scour. 

This is an example of a fundamental problem in how society approaches the many challenges we face.  We look for the technological solution, which is often no more than a sticking plaster and can also cause other societal problems.  There is a huge industry around food and farming offering the latest technology solution, when nature could already be providing it.  But big business isn’t researching the natural remedies, because they won’t make any money from it.