The Kriemhild Dairy Farms office is a modest place, to say the least…
If you ever visited the office, you’d remember the line of barn boots that decorate the entryway next to a quaint washer/dryer set up and you’ve probably been greeted by one or two friendly pitbulls. Being that our headquarters is the basement of Red Gate’s herd manager, Brian Rivington, and only a few miles down the road from the farm, we were only slightly surprised to find a newborn calf next to the heater when we came in for our 9:30am meeting one morning. The calf was born on a day of particularly cruddy weather to a first-time mother. It became chilled and might not have survived if Brian had not found it and immediately intervened. A hot water bath and hair dryer session later, the little heifer calf, now known by the name “Rosebud”, became alert and responsive. We watched and cooed over our little visitor as we went about our office routines, and she was able to join the rest of the calves in the barn later that afternoon.
During calving season at Red Gate Farm, the calves are kept separately from the mothers. This is a common practice on many dairy farms, and is done for various reasons that are unique to each farmer. At Red Gate, the main reason is that their calves have a better survival rate when they are kept separately from the adult cows. Unlike beef cattle, dairy cows have generally been selected and bred to enhance milk production and not mothering abilities. Therefore, the mothering instincts in most dairy cows is unpredictable and it is often safer for the calf to be removed once it is born. Creating a designated Calf Barn is the best way the Rivingtons have found to avoid the calf being ignored, stepped on, crushed or even attacked by the mother or another cow in the herd. Separating calves from the herd also makes it easier control the calves’ environment, since newborn calves are much more susceptible to pathogen and environmental threats than an adult cow. Having a separate barn for the calves helps reduce the chances of them getting sick and is conducive to monitoring the calves’ health.
Some dairy farms choose to prioritize calves being left with their mothers because they find it to be a more effective management style for their calving systems. There is strong anecdotal evidence that calves that are raised this was have greater longevity. One of the benefits of their system is that their calves have the opportunity to drink fresh milk instead of milk replacer (As it happens, about 60% of dairy farms in the U.S. chose to feed milk replacer to their calves so that they can have close control of the calves’ nutrition and also save the harvest of fresh milk for sale.)
However, at Red Gate Farm, the Rivingtons find that their calves thrive the most from being fed fresh milk pooled from the entire herd. This means that at milking time, some of the fresh milk is diverted away from the commercial batch to fill a 120 gallon tank that is specifically set aside to feed calves.
After Red Gate’s calves are able to stand (shortly after birth), they are fed 2 liters of colostrum, the antibody and nutrient-dense first milk of a newly freshened cow. This feeding within the first few hours of life is critical for a newborn calf whose immune system will not completely develop until 1-2 months of age.
Another advantage of the Rivington’s system of separating calves at birth is ensuring that every calf gets enough colostrum soon enough, a necessity that is not confirmable if left up to the mothers. Also, when the calves are given their first drink, it is pooled colostrum from multiple fresh mothers. So, not only does each calf receive antibodies from their mother, but they also benefit from the combined immunities of a large chunk of the herd. On top of feeding their own calves, Red Gate’s cows are able to produce enough surplus colostrum to be one of a number of farms that supply a veterinary biotechnology company that manufactures commercial colostrum replacer and supplements for other farms’ calves and livestock.
Although the thought of calving in the spring may conjure up images of flowers and sunshine, we are all familiar with the reality that March and April weather in Upstate New York is... fickle. This is not good news for calves who, like our friend Rosebud, are vulnerable to colder temperatures. Calving is a wet process, and if the calves are not dried off properly on a cold day things can go downhill quickly.
At Red Gate, when calves are separated from the herd, they are temporarily kept in “hot boxes”, which are calf-sized wooden pens in a room with radiant heating in the floor (a luxury most of us humans don’t even have ourselves). Based on years of experience, the Rivington Family has figured out that radiant heated floor was the way to go for their farm. “The calves are already lying on the floor [as newborns], so the radiant heated floor heats them from the bottom up,” Nancy Rivington explains. The calves are kept in their cozy hot boxes for about 12 to 24 hours. While there, they receive their colostrum and their selenium supplement, their navel is dipped to prevent infections directly entering their bloodstream, and their ears are tagged so they can be accurately monitored.
Once a calf has had enough time to practice standing it is ready to be moved into a group pen with like-sized calves of similar ages. “We group them in groups of 18...we’ve never used hutches. Both Bruce and I feel that it helps the calf learn to get along with the others,” Nancy explains as she helped a calf get a grip on a group feeder full of fresh milk during a morning feeding. The calves are fed fresh mothers’ milk up until they are weaned at 10-12 weeks of age, slightly later than the norm of 6-8 weeks, and the Rivingtons are careful to keep a limit on how many calves are in a group to allow adequate space for them to grow without getting crowded.
If you ever follow along during a milk feeding in the calf barn, you’ll notice that only a small percentage of the time is actually spent feeding the 200 calves, and that the majority of the time is spent watching and observing. Anyone working in the calf barn knows the early signs of sick calf whether it’s as obvious as diarrhea or as subtle as taking a little too much time to get up for feeding. The entire calving process at Red Gate farm is designed to optimize calf health, so when a calf does fall ill, which happens despite the best management, it can receive the immediate individual attention it needs.
We feel privileged to have such an intimate connection and understanding of Red Gate Farm’s practices. It’s a special experience to witness firsthand the compassion that the Rivington Family and the farm workers have for their animals. Farmers are in a unique realm where their compassion and care for the animals serves their own human interests, beyond the obvious benefit to the animals themselves. For if the animals are not well cared for, a farm and its business cannot be truly sustainable.
Every farm has different challenges and advantages that affect their management decisions. Even at Kriemhild, as connected as we are to dairy production, we are fascinated to continuously learn how one way of management can serve one farm well, and yet that same practice may not work well at all on another. There is no one right way to farm. The methods a farmer uses are in consideration of their specific animals’ needs, what their specific land provides, what their specific customers value, and what their own specific values are. And the management style a farm uses this season is not necessarily what they have always done, nor what they will continue to do forever. A dynamic, changing spectrum of methods fall under the term “farming.” It truly is the oldest applied science, and the original performing art. We salute the creative, compassionate, scientific farmers at Red Gate Farm during their busiest and most reverent season: Spring Calving.
P.S. If you haven't already, check out our event page for Calving Day at Red Gate farm. You're invited!!
As the Butter Churns
Author: Ellen Fagan and Victoria Peila