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How I deal with newborn calves – leave on Mama or no?

I’m regularly asked what I do with my calves when the dairy cows calve.

For instance, do I keep them on the mamas or remove them and bottle feed, or a combo?

I put together today’s video to explain just that.

Take a look at my process, then I’d love for you to scroll down below the video to the comment section and tell me what you do?  We can all learn from each other!!

One thing that’s important is that we don’t criticize what another farmer must do to remain sustainable – if you wouldn’t dream of separating your mamas and calves, that’s fine and that works for you, and someone else might need to do so to be successful.

So share your process after you hear about mine and let’s learn together!!

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Can’t wait to talk with you in the comments below 🙂



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{ 22 comments… add one }
  • Shelley Hansen December 2, 2015, 12:04 am

    If you’re a mom, separating kids (I have goats) hurts, but I separate all kids. Dam raised kids are wild, they escape, they get in the hay feeders, they steal milk, even from other does, they get fat…many reasons! I often breed younger or less valuable does to a meat breed or another breed, for butcher, & sell or even give away kids as day olds after colostrum. “Keeper” kids are still handraised, separate from the does for at least a month.

    • Charlotte Smith December 2, 2015, 12:44 am

      Thank you for sharing!! Great points about goat kids being wilder!!!

  • kate haas December 2, 2015, 2:52 am

    Great info here Charlotte, thank you! I don’t have much to offer to this discussion as we’ve lleft the three calves born on our farm to date on their moms but really appreciate the warning re the mom’s protective instincts. This makes me rethink what we will do in the future. Also, I’m really grateful to learn the importance of letting the mom lick the calf for her own health– good to know.

    • Charlotte Smith December 2, 2015, 8:13 pm

      Hi kate thanks and great to hear from you!!! There are some great ideas here in others’ comments, too, regarding protective mama’s if you get one in the future. Hope you’re well!!

  • Shawna December 2, 2015, 3:09 am

    I love hearing about your management, and you are so right about every farm needing to evaluate their own goals and unique aspects, and doing what is best for them. We can sabotage ourselves when we hold someone else’s ideals as our own!

    We don’t leave calves with cows for many of the same reasons as you. I know it works for some people, but not in our model.

    We’ve actually found that it is not cost effective for us to raise calves at all. For the cost of time and milk that would otherwise go to herdshare members, I can buy a beautiful, healthy, young cow that is ready to go. We’ve gone to cross-breeding with a beef bull (Low-line Angus or Dexter) and selling the calves as drop-calves about a week off the mama. And we have no shortage of buyers for these homestead project calves.

    I’ve received some criticism for selling these so young and not allowing them to stay with their mamas. But I’m OK with that. This is what it takes to make our farm sustainable, and so that is what we need to do.

    • Charlotte Smith December 2, 2015, 8:01 pm

      You sound like us, too. Started breeding our cows to angus – they sell quickly or we keep for burger 🙂

      The criticism from non-farmers is character building, eh???? xoxo

  • Rachel Moser December 2, 2015, 4:00 am

    We milk once a day and leave the calf on the cow all day, separating at night. Every calf stays at its mother’s side for the first 36-48 hours, milking once a day and then we start separating them at night. We have 12 cows in milk on average. We have built our parlor specifically to manage this model. The calves sleep in a lean-to right next to the milk parlor. We have 4 bypass stanchions and the mama’s enter from the back, and we bring each calve in a few minutes in to the milking to ensure full let down. The calves enter the front stanchion gate, (we have 2 entrances to the parlor). We place a 2×6 board under the cow that keeps the calf from reaching the udder. I do have a few cows that actually have 3 distinct let downs and I have to let the calf lick on a teat and the re-wash that teat, otherwise she will hold back her cream. It does take a lot more time and effort, but we are highly committed to this model. Our calves are weaned between the ages of 6-9 months, depending on the size of the calf and milk volume/demand at that time. We raise our bull calves all the way to butcher and sell the meat for premium prices to make it worth it financially. And our replacement heifers are super healthy and already used to the parlor when they calve. We are extremely careful around protective new mama’s, but our cows know the system so well now they expect us to handle their calves. My teenagers do a lot of the work on our farm. I’m just not able to milk twice a day. And I was a nursing mom when our first cow calved, and it just felt right. We have been at this for almost 5 years and started off milking in the pasture with a portable milk trailer, then moved into our 2 car garage with 2 bypass stanchions, and last winter started milking in our new parlor, which isn’t 100% complete yet, but it functions. It took FOREVER to milk before we had the setup we have now because the calves slept in another barn and had to be brought to the garage through a gate maze alleyway across our driveway. But we made it work. We lose a certain amount of milk profits to the calf for sure, but our goal is to raise milk cows that are 100% grain free, so since our calves never get grain, the milk is important for their proper growth. We hope to start charging much more for our heifers we sell, as we raise cows that have better grass-based genetics.

    • Charlotte Smith December 2, 2015, 8:15 pm

      Love the description of your new parlor and how you’ve grown!! Also LOVE your website 🙂 so pretty!! My son is a Marine stationed in MO and we were hoping to find raw milk for him but I don’t see anything close. He’s in Fort Leonardwood. Let me know if you’re close!! I’m guessing not 🙁

      Thanks so much for sharing and keep up the great work and lovely website!!

      • Rachel Moser December 4, 2015, 7:22 pm

        If only your son wasn’t 3.5 hours away! 🙂 Thanks for all you are doing to help small farmers raise their prices and keep themselves in business. It is a very real challenge.

        We never actually intended to grow a retail farm business. We intended our farm to be a life coaching healing retreat, and we were just going to feed the people who came for life coaching. But people need real food and the dairy took on a life of its own! It is a constant battle for us to keep it going but have the time to do our other business so we can actually make a real living. We hope that this year will allow us to earn enough from farming to hire some help and implement a farm-based youth mentorship program utilizing our life coaching model that will allow kids to do chores, especially in the gardens, to earn points for home school and extra curricular classes. We just have to finish the barn that has the classroom space and get some local families organized and trained to make it work. I just can’t farm full-time and meet my own emotional and financial needs, but I’m not willing to not produce food for my family either. I’m hoping we can find a few other like-minded people who are willing to be committed and get dirty enough to make a cooperative farming/education model work. We will see.

        Our website is a constant ongoing project, but we like it more and more as we keep tweaking it. So thanks for the complement!

  • Christie December 2, 2015, 5:01 am

    We have had 2 calves on our family farm in the last 2 years from our Jersey. We have had good success with leaving them together for the first 4 weeks exclusively and just milk as usual. At about 4 weeks, when the calf begins taking “more than his share”, I begin separating them at night. I just trained the little one with treats to go into his stall at night. I have never had trouble with aggressiveness when they both get treats at bedtime. We milk in the AM and turn them out together for the day. OAD milking works well for me. It is miraculous though, how she holds back the cream for her calf! We have very little cream on our milk until after weaning. We do however have a very fat and happy calf.
    We have very little pasture here in the hills so it is worth the sacrifice of the milk to keep him fed during the day. I love the idea of a nurse cow but feed is just too expensive up here!

    • Charlotte Smith December 2, 2015, 8:16 pm

      Thanks for sharing — I am loving hearing everyone’s experience and we all do it a little differently and it works for each of us!! Great ideas 🙂

  • Jerry Benner December 2, 2015, 7:12 pm

    Hi, thanks for your video. I have decided to keep my calves on the cow. My cow has only shown aggression towards our dog who knows how to avoid her and not any of my Grandkids who sometimes like to watch. The first two reasons are the health and ease of raising the calf for resale or meat. The other equally important reason is the combination of not needing full production of milk and my own independence from twice daily milking. I seperate the cow and calf 12 hours prior to when I want to milk. The actual milking then has taken several methods as the calves grow because my cow will not release her milk unless the calf is touching her or actually nursing from the oppisite side. I now have a stanchion set up next to the cows and at 6 months it is large enough to hold the calf’s head in. this is also good enough for the cow to let her milk down. He is also getting too aggressive with butting the udder to be milking simultaneously.
    I would be happy to hear what other people do who only milk part-time.

  • Peter Whitman December 3, 2015, 2:08 am

    Thanks for the video Charlotte! I am in Rhode Island so I can’t sell Raw Milk but we do milk a Jersey for our own supply and that of my children and grandchildren. When our heifer calved this summer my plan was to “share” her with her calf (beautiful heifer calf) separating them at night and putting them back together for the day. I had 2 reasons for doing this #1 we didn’t need all of her milk and #2 we have a small but busy farm (we raise and sell lamb, beef, pork, chicken, eggs and vegetables) and I was hoping to avoid 2 milkings. Things started out very well and the calf grew very quickly but after a month our heifers SCC count went through the roof! She showed no signs of mastitis or any other problems. about 2 weeks later I noticed some small razor like slices on her teats and (one teat was worse than the others). When my Vet came to dehorn the calf I showed her and she suspected that the SCC count was from damage / infection to the teats from the calf and had me separate them. I sent my next milk samples from the 4 individual teats and only the one that had the most damage was very High so my Vet suggested that I dry off that quarter to let it heal. This seems to have done the trick. So now I am milking 3 quarters, twice a day and it is going fine (I am raising 2 other calves on the extra milk. The other down side that I found with sharing is that her calf does not like to be handled and I hope this changes before we start milking her in 18 months!
    So for me; I will separate our cows and calves in the future.

  • Ashley December 7, 2015, 5:19 am

    We leave our calves on their mothers. We breed for docility and good mothering- both traits can go well together. I believe that there is a herd boss- and that is ME. Yes, there is a herd boss within the herd that is a cow. But ultimately, I am the boss. And my cows know that, they can never see my fear or me backing off to them. Our cows calve in the Spring, we start seperating them from their mothers at night at 2 weeks of age. When we begin milking moms to their fullest, we bring the calf into the parlor, tie it up with a halter on, and then bring the mother in to allow full let down. I do have one cow that is super aggressive at calving. After day 2 she calms down. And then the rest of the cows are super docile at calving. That being said, when any of our cows calve, I go in with an axe handle ready to protect myself. Once they remember I am boss, they give in. Having breastfeed my babies, I can’t imagine taking the calf- but that’s just me 🙂 And I don’t like milking 2x per day! So the calf takes care of the rest and it helps them become a better ruminant. As a Certified Lactation Counselor, I learned that there are certain antibodies that are passed on by the mother simply by putting baby to the breast- just the stimulation. And I believe that is true to cows as well.

  • Caren December 15, 2015, 12:10 am

    We have always left our calves on the moms and only milk once a day. The calves stay with their moms for 1-2 weeks and then we separate them all into a stall at night. Milk the cows in the morning and turn the calves out to them all day long.
    We also only milk 5 days a week. Leaving the calves on the cows means if we have to go out of town or for some other reason cannot milk, there’s no problem.
    The cows and calves all know the routine. One day I thought it was Sunday and put the calves into their stall. Everyone started bawling and I realised it was only Saturday. They all knew and let me know.
    I have told all my customers that the health of the cows and my farm worker come first so there may be times when I say there is no milk available. They are all fine with that model. So far we’ve never had that happen.
    We are milking 4 Jerseys now and will be up to 6 next year and 12 the following year. Building our customer base very slowly and always being sure we are over producing for our numbers rather than under producing. I feed any extra milk that is not bought or made into cheese to the pigs and chickens and nothing goes to waste.
    We’re a biodynamic farm so our entire focus is on the health of all the farm organism and that means balance in every aspect. Time off for the farm workers and the cows is a critical part of that.
    We’ve only had one problem with a cow and that was a new cow bought into the herd. She was immediately dangerous as soon as she calved. So she went right back to the breeder. Since then we’ve never had any problem with any cow or calf. Even our bull is totally mellow and manageable. Though he’s still a bull and I’d never trust him 100%.
    Everyone keeps their horns as it is essential for the health of the cows and the herd and we’ve never had a problem. Could be just luck but I suspect it’s a calm environment reflective of respect for the cow’s nature, her instincts, and meeting her needs before our own.
    Thanks for all your videos. They are great and I’ve learned a lot about the systems other people use. I have adapted our cleaning procedures after seeing your videos.

    • Dawn October 28, 2017, 5:49 pm

      I truly loved this post! I grew up on a small dairy farm and would love to get some miniature jerseys in the future. I knew however, that i didn’t want to do it like my dad did and that I wanted happy safe cows. Most of my attempts at research leads me to more factory farming that’s focused on money than love of animals and where your food is coming from. Your post has convinced me that my ideas aren’t as crazy and hippy-ish as my grandpa would like me to believe. Thank you so much! Sounds like you have very happy and healthy cows!

      • Charlotte October 31, 2017, 8:14 am

        Thank you for writing!! Not crazy at all to raise your own cows & have your own fresh milk!!
        Take care,

  • Courtney December 27, 2015, 8:41 pm

    What kind of milking machine do you use in your equipment cleaning video?

  • Janice Cox June 29, 2016, 7:27 pm

    Thank you Charlotte for your wonderful training videos. My daughter and I have learned everything we know about milking from you! We take the calf off after the first several days and put it in a small stall right next to the mother at night. Then after milking in the morning (once a day) the calf goes out with its mother until bedtime. So far, so good. The grandchildren are encouraged to brush and pet the heifer calf when it comes into the stall in the evening, away from its mom.

    I like your ideas on having a nurse cow, and that’s a great idea for when we want to “retire” one of our two Jerseys.

    I’ve listened to the others who have responded to this “what to do with the calf” video and some of the ideas are worth considering more seriously. I really don’t know how we’d NOT milk on Saturday and Sunday, although that sounds very appealing. We sell our milk at the local farmers market (has to be labeled “not for human consumption” in Florida) and the milk from the weekend and Monday is for our family’s use. How do Jerseys udders make it through the weekend without repercussions? If it’s do-able, it could be liberating to leave for the weekend.

    Thanks for all you are doing to educate the rest of us. Love your hard work and dedication!

  • Martha December 8, 2016, 10:18 pm

    This is the routine on our own farm, of separating the cows and calves, and we do this because we’ve been told that keeping the calves on the cows increases the risk of pathogens in the milk. So, as our milk is going out beyond the farm gate, we want to keep it as clean as possible.

    We separate them early, before they can bond to each other – it seems to be easier on both that way. They then bond to their human caregivers instead, and the cows with the milking equipment. We also keep the calves together in a large stall in the barn with ready access to their own outdoor calf-only paddock, so they have companions and room to romp.

    No-one yet has turned down our milk because of this procedure, but we need to explain to people “why” we do it.

  • Barbara August 29, 2017, 10:54 am

    Hi charlotte,
    We are just muddling the through our first calf born 10days ago. We left calf and mama together for the first 48 hours then tried to keep the calf in the barn at night, we love the idea of OAD milking. after a week of this it’s become very difficult to catch and lead the calf and mama back to the barn in the evenings. Sweating, running through forest trying to get a lead on the calf as she is uninterested in ‘treats’, we’ve decided this is not sustainable for us and our set up. We have a large pasture with a wooded area for the animals. We only have the one cow and two donkeys. Today we are building a pen for the calf and keeping her away from the pasture and trying to bottle feed for the next two months. I am hoping she will take the bottle and it will be easier to lead mama back to the barn with grain and molasses. Any thoughts are appreciated. We have JUST left the calf in the barn this morning as we decided yesterday evening that we need a less energetic and traumatic routine in the evenings. Your video has been very helpful.

  • Shaneen March 9, 2021, 10:04 pm

    Hello. It is now 2021, but I came across this article with the video and it was so helpful. I do have a question / concern I was hoping you could help me with! We are completely new to cattle, and there are reasons why I am interested in raising bottle fed babies, but I definitely lack confidence.

    We have a dexter cow, she is ready to give birth. We cannot milk her, she is afraid, we cannot train her we do not have the facilities setup to do so, we don’t have a squeeze, its just a struggle overall.

    I am absolutely not interested in having anymore cows that I cannot handle, halter and lead: for emergency reasons, for milking, for safety for myself and my family, the list goes on.

    I want to remove the calf from its mother right away (only if it is a female however) I want to bring her next door to our other acreage and bottle feeding and care for it myself for the reasons listed above.

    Charlotte how would you go about and suggest I do this? Remove calf immediately? Do I worry about the mother? Will the mother dry up fairly quickly? I need help, I do hope this is still active and you get the notification.

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