The business of raising calves

John Oncken

Milking cows don’t just appear in a dairy herd, unless you buy them. Most begin as newly born calves, grow into heifers and eventually enter the milking string.

In my days of growing up on the small dairy farm with about 15 milk cows, the journey from calf to milking cow pretty much took place in the one dairy barn with its several pens, one where the calves were born and a second slightly bigger pen where they grew until they were big enough to go outside into smallish grazing pastures.  

Of course, with a herd of about common size for the times, we didn’t have many calves over the course of the year and we pretty much hand fed them all the way.

Not like it was

Yes, you can laugh about our primitive calf raising system but I truly can’t remember ever having a calf die — not even one.  And yes, times have changed over the decades (many times in fact) and calf raising today would befuddle my dad and other dairy producers of his generation.

Two calves together is better than one alone.

If you really want to see and hear about calf raising in 2019, you should have been in attendance at the recent “Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Conference" (DCHA) and annual meeting, held last week in Middleton as did some 400 attendees (dairy calf and heifer growers, dairy farmers and allied industry professionals) from 33 states and eight other countries did over the three days. 


The conference kicked off with tours of ABS Global’s Dekorra and Windsor facilities. Dekorra features a state-of-the-art calf facility where guests learned about topnotch biosecurity and animal health practices. The Windsor location is home to IntelliGen, which processes sexed bovine genetics.

The group then visited Crave Brothers Farm LLC, Waterloo, Wis., which recently added three all-in, all-out calf nursery barns. The conference concluded with a tour of STgenetics’ testing site in Middleton.

Educational sessions

During the conference, DCHA members heard  presentations on a wide-ranging array of topics, ranging from fly control, to colostrum management to disease outbreak prevention, treatment and control and animal welfare. And much more.

There were 60 commercial exhibits to explore at the conference.

From that wide selection of topics you would get the idea of raising calves was a big and complicated process and you’d be correct.

Bigger and costly

As dairy operations have expanded in size over the past twenty five years from the small 50 cow herds to over 100 cows and into the thousands, calf care has become a major economic enterprise.

No longer is calf raising a sort of secondary job that often fell to mother and the kids, rather, the future of the dairy herd often depends on the quality of the next generation of replacement animals.  

A family operation

Sam Gardner, the farm manager of Gardner Heifers, Huddleston, Virginia, outlined to me how his family heifer raising enterprise (about 1,000 calves at one time) works: “We typically receive heifers from our dairy customers (in North Carolina and Pennsylvania) at 5 months of age. Before arriving they had undergone a vaccination program. The heifers remain with us for 16 to 17 months with a contract goal of gaining one and three quarter pounds per day.  They are bred at about 13 months  with the owners provided semen and are returned to their owners at about 21 months of age weighing about 1,250 pounds and will calve at around 24 months. This is near two months earlier than the industry average."

Sam Gardner of Gardner Heifers in Virginia helps raise 1000 calves at a time.

Gardner Heifers was started by Drs. Don and Susan Gardner, both veterinarians, in the 1970s. He had a veterinary practice concentrating on young stock and Susan later headed the Virginia Department of Agriculture Diagnostic Laboratory. Both have now returned fulltime to the heifer raising operation. 

Go west

A number of Wisconsin dairy producers own land in the west (Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado) where they raise their calves because of milder weather, less expensive and available land and being able to specialize in the raising process. 

It is hard to believe (at least for me) that you can raise 1,000s of calves in one place but I’ve seen it done and done well. Results wise, the death losses are very small and the care is great with the best of feed, veterinary care and housing conditions. Besides, the custom grower doesn’t stay in business very long if things aren’t done right. 

Not new but bigger

Again, like it or not, this is about change and will grow as smaller dairy herds get involved. Of course, we’ve had custom calf growers in Wisconsin for decades raising dozens or hundreds of calves and even the smaller dairy herds have built new calf facilities, upgraded their management skills and seek further information at the DCHA conference. 


An interesting seminar was one entitled “Welfare of Dairy Calves and Heifers: Relevance to the Animal, the Producer and the Consumer.” It was offered by Dr. Jennifer Van Os, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist - Animal Welfare, Department of Dairy Science at UW-Madison who joined the faculty in March a year ago. She is conducting research on understanding, evaluating and improving the welfare of dairy animals from a biological perspective.”

She describes animal welfare as the well being or quality of life of an individual animal and is often viewed from vastly different perspectives by the farmer and consumer.

Dr. Jennifer Van Os, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist - Animal Welfare, Department of Dairy Science  at UW-Madison research's animal welfare.

Dehorning of a cow or young calf  is done by the farmer for the safety of other animals in the herd, yet might be viewed by the unknowing consumer as a form of cruelty. Dr. Van Os suggests that calves be dehorned at a very young age using a local anesthetic. In some areas of the country the use of caustic paste (with an anesthetic) is increasing in popularity. In either case, advice of the veterinarian is important. 

Research at Rose-E-Lane     

She is also conducting data on a system of using misting of cows while in the milking parlor on hot summer days where the water can be controlled so as to not wet their heads which they do not like. The research is being conducted at Rose-E-Lane dairy at Watertown where the Holtermans initiated the idea. 


Another cow comfort system gaining popularity is the use of cow brushes which cattle and calves really enjoy. She says that tests show cows will go to great lengths to use a rotating brush. And, that even two week old calves will regularly use the brush for grooming. She suggests nailing a scrub brush to the barn wall as a cheap and effective means for calves to groom their heads.


Van Os also discussed recent research that shows the housing of young calves in individual hutches side by side but together so the calves can be close to each other makes for faster growth and social skills when they later join other calves in a group pen. She calls it social development, learning to play, recognizing new things and less food phobia later on. 

She summarized by saying “animal welfare encompasses not only health and performance but also the animals internal feelings and appropriate opportunities important to their species. 

I suspect we will learn much more about cow comfort as Dr. Van Os research continues. And, may be surprised too.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached  at 608-572-0747 or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.