Dairy cows are mothers too

How we started raising calves on cows

Gracie, my first heifer calf, was two days old in this picture. Mama Greeley is close by.

My first calf, a heifer named Gracie, as born twelve years ago toady. Her birthday is still on my calendar. Why do I still mark this day? Partially, it’s practical. Back then, I didn’t have a dairy records management system (now we use PCDART now, which was written for DOS, but still a great piece of software, dinosaur tho it is…). Gracie’s birthday was on my e-calendar because it was the best way of keeping records. It remains on my calendar to this day to remind me of humble beginnings — and that dairy cows are mamas too.

Vivian and younger me. She was 5 months old in this picture, and our first heifer was new.

I was a new mother myself when I made this choice. I wasn’t more than 100′ yards apart from Vivian for the first 11 months of her life. How could I do otherwise for my cow and her baby? My proximity to my cow’s experience allowed me to see things from her perspective. So I let her keep her calf and milked her alongside her baby.

That’s pretty much the life we still give to our dairy heifers. (The young bulls have to leave the herd for another field at 6 months or they will start breeding their sisters…) We think it matters that dairy cows want to be mamas, too!

Why does a cow produce milk anyway?

Most people don’t stop to think about this, but dairy cows don’t produce milk for our convenience. They produce milk to feed their calves. Standard fare, even on the most progressive of dairies (the 1%ers), is to take the babies from the mamas and raise them in hutches. It’s considered the only practical and financially feasible way to milk a cow. But what if it’s not?

I always thought that I wasn’t going to be a “real” dairy farmer because I couldn’t do it — selling the calves off the farm in front of their bellowing mamas. I just didn’t have the stomach for it. For a couple of years as we were transitioning from having 12 cows to having 30+ cows, we had a nurse cow herd, so that every other mother got to keep her baby and adopted a baby from another mother, who we then milked. It was hard on the mothers at first, but they got over it, or so it seemed.

But if you really spend time with cows and observe their ways with an open heart, you can see that dairy cows want to be mamas too, even the “poor” moms usually have some past trauma around their babies being taken that makes them not as adept at being mamas anymore. We’ve dealt with this a lot. Sometimes dairy cows experiencing the first time being a mother means they always think you are about to take their baby, and they aren’t happy about it!

Enrica, of our cows who loved being a mama the most, would periodically “steal” other babies from less intensely committed mamas so we made her a nurse cow. Here she is accepting both her baby and another baby, instantly. The horned cow in the back right is gentle Gracie all grown up. She got to keep her glorious crown of horns her whole life, even after we went to a hornless herd for the cows’ safety as our numbers grew.

Taking time to observe, it’s not always as it seems…

A nurse cow herd is definitely better than hutches, but it’s still nothing like the health and well-being and peace that comes from raising all of the babies on their mothers. This is still considered wildly impractical by most “real” dairy people. But what if the way we dairy is broken? What if it needs a fresh perspective? And what if the answer isn’t milk from oats or soybeans or nuts, all of which are nutritionally less dense and much harder on the earth to grow than grass. What if we just need to find a way to raise the young and milk the mamas too? I credit our farm manager, Heidi, for giving me the courage to say let’s just raise all the calves on cows.

Little Nathan, just 10 days old, hanging with the big kids and mamas. Real milk comes from cows that get to be mothers, too. And that means bull calves also need a life worth living.

That’s exactly what we do today. This year we will milk 40 cows — interestingly enough, 40 is the threshold for what seems to constitute a “real” dairy farm for lots of practical and economic reasons, although a lot of pioneers in micro dairy are changing those assumptions — with their calves at their sides. Boys and girls a like. Because it’s what is right and true.

It’s not easy, and we don’t have it all figured out yet, and nor do be begrudge other farmers who aren’t practicing this principle. We are still working on the economic model to make it all possible, which is why if you care about this kind of change in dairy, the biggest thing you could do to cheer us on is buy our beef, pork, lamb and eggs — and raw “pet” milk for your furry friends. But I believe with my whole heart it’s where regenerative dairy is headed.

My mama holding Vivian as an infant while I milked Greeley. Motherhood is part of animal husbandry, and that means we honor all the mothers and mothering.

Giving thanks where it is due — mothering as a team

In the meantime, I want to thank my own mother who made it possible that I could let dairy cows be mamas too. She helped and continues to help raise my baby, so that I can help cows be mothers and bring about a shift in how we think about dairy to make this possible.

The picture of Vivian collapsed on the couch in her Moby wrap was how she would continue napping after I worked for hours with her attached to me. She was a lot to carry, and worth it.

My mother gave me a break so that I could keep going, and she knew that I didn’t want my baby far from me. That’s the same life we give our cows and their babies.

Supporting our farm means these are principles important to you, too. A homestead meant that we could do everything the way we wanted to. The farm is our way of sharing that homestead with you.

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