Dairy Calves Take Grazing Lessons from Mom

Dairy Calves Take Grazing Lessons from Mom

By Ron Daines

Wisconsin dairy farmer David Mayenschein says he can hardly wait until next spring. That’s when the dairy animals he’s raised using principles of animal behavior will freshen, and he’s excited to see how well they’ve learned to graze.

For the past eight years, Mayenschein has grazed his cows intensively on pasture. But his calves consistently failed to learn to eat grain and grass. In 2002, he heard animal behaviorist Fred Provenza talk about the principles of animal behavior, and the light bulb flashed on.

“As soon as I heard Fred, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to do this,’” says Mayenschein. Now his replacement calves take lessons from their mothers. And he likes what he sees.

“Fred says cows teach them, so I put these calves out there amongst the cows, and the cows taught them what to eat and how to eat it,” says Mayenschein.

It had taken more than 20 years of transitioning through several phases of grazing and conventional dairying to set the stage for Mayenschein to embrace the principles of behavior.

He and his wife, Marilyn, along with their 25-year-old son, Mike, milk 80 Holstein cows in north central Wisconsin near Thorp on a dairy that’s been in the family for 98 years. He took over the farm from his father in 1976 after testing the employment waters in Milwaukee.

“I hated the city,” he said. “I guess you could say you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”

When he arrived at the farm, his father was continuous-grazing the dairy’s cows on pasture, just as did many of the region’s dairies, although Mayenschein said that compared with today’s knowledge about managed intensive grazing, “it really wasn’t as effective.”

Emboldened by a growing trend toward conventional operations, Mayenschein set out to change things on the family farm. He tore down fences and hitched up the plow, turning to green chop for feed.

“When I arrived, we had 72 acres under the plow, and we tripled that,” he says. His crop rotation started with two years of corn followed by one year of oats with new seeding, then three to four years of clover and alfalfa hay.

But after 20 years of conventional dairying, Mayenschein began learning about pasture-based dairying.

“I didn’t hear about intensive grazing until into the 1990s,” he says. “But once I heard about it, it just blew me away. We don’t plow any more – 1997 was the last year we planted corn. I’d never go back to conventional farming.”

Now his cows stay outdoors year round on pastures that include a New Zealand ryegrass (BG 34), white clover, Ladino, trefoil, blue grass, quack grass, timothy and even a few dandelions. The only time the cows are on concrete is when they come in for milking twice a day. Mayenschein says his grazing cows are healthier and lasting longer. Their average productive life is now 10 years, and he just sold his oldest, a 16-year-old that had borne 14 calves.

Mayenschein is one of a growing number of pasture-based dairies. Twenty years ago, many Wisconsin dairies continuous-pastured their cows, but few, if any, used managed grazing. By the time he began intensive pasture management in 1996, 11% of Wisconsin dairies had turned to pasture. Today, it’s more than 20%, and the number continues to grow, opening the door for further adoption of behavioral principles in the dairy business.

After hearing the talk by Provenza, Utah State University range scientist who has been researching and teaching animal behavior for a quarter of a century, Mayenschein decided to put what he learned to the test.

He had tried to persuade his calves to eat grain from his hand. They’d eat while he fed them but ignored the grain when he left. “Then I remembered that Fred said the mother would teach them.” So he cut 15-gallon drums in half, filled the troughs with grain, and put them on the ground where the calves could see what the cows were eating and could imitate them. Before long the calves were eating the grain right alongside their mothers.

In the summer of 2004, Mayenschein observed that these same mother-trained calves grazed his pastures much better than their mothers, which would bunch up and dead-end in a corner of the pasture.

“Their calves didn’t bunch up – they were scattered all over the field,” he said. “I can’t wait until these cows freshen next spring. I think they’re going to be much better grazers.”

Mayenschein says the benefits of harnessing behavioral principles are clear.

There’s virtually no work with calves left on their mothers.
There’s no need for a calf hutch or pen.
The calves grow faster.
The calves are much healthier.

On the negative side, a dairy that leaves calves with cows will lose valuable milk production, plus the calves are more difficult to wean.

“The bad part is when you wean them the mother is bellowing for her calf. But it’s only a problem for three to four days tops,” says Mayenschein. “They’re hard to wean but, boy, they know how to graze. It’s like a lawnmower came through there. They even eat the burdock.”

One challenge for Mayenschein is deciding whether to buy or raise his own replacements. When milk prices are low, he’s not troubled by leaving his calves on the cows. But when milk prices are high, as they have been in recent months, a sucking calf is sucking profits. He observes that after three weeks of age, a calf is drinking 30 to 60 pounds a day of mother’s milk.

A solution, he says, may be to segregate the herd by level of mastitis, putting calves on cows with high somatic cell counts. However, he says he doesn’t know whether calves nursing cows with high somatic cell counts will develop a propensity toward mastitis.

This year, because of the high milk prices, Mayenschein has been trying a different tack, using the behavioral principle that says young animals also learn from their peers – he calls these peers “surrogate mothers.”

He raised his own replacements and put some of them in individual hutches until they were two months old. Others were placed in pens with calves that already knew how to eat grain. The hutch-raised calves took much longer to catch on to eating grain and were much more work to train. Meanwhile, the group-raised calves quickly and easily learned on their own from watching their pen mates.

“You mingle them with another calf that eats well and it doesn’t take long for the young calf to learn,” he observes.

Mayenschein says he’s happy to preach the virtues of grazing pasture using concepts of animal behavior.

“I’m constantly trying new ideas,” he says. “I used to be a conventional farmer, and they don’t like to tell their secrets. But grazers like to spread the word about the joys of grazing pasture.”

Indeed, he said a number local dairies have expressed interest in his use of behavioral principles. (See article on Minnesota dairy operators Vance and Bonnie Haugen.) He conducted three pasture walks on the subject in 2003 and spoke about his experience with behavior during a grazing conference last winter, after which he fielded numerous queries.

“I would suggest it to anybody,” he says. “I think Fred does great work. A lot of people should really read more about what he’s doing and try to understand what he’s doing.”