Dairy Cows Train Calves to Graze

By Ron Daines

Dairy operator Vance Haugen was in the audience when David Mayenscheim spoke a couple of years ago at a winter grazing conference. He listened as Mayenscheim talked about how he let his calves graze with their mothers on his Wisconsin pasture-based dairy, about how the mothers taught their offspring how to graze.

Mayenscheim’s talk, discussing principles of animal behavior he’d learned from Utah State range scientist Fred Provenza, planted a seed in Haugen’s mind.

“We had a cow that was going to fall freshen,” said Haugen, “so we let her calf run with her, and it worked.” The calf quickly learned to graze the Haugen dairy pastures.

In the spring of 2004, Haugen expanded his experiment with the 100 cows scheduled to freshen. The bull calves and half of the heifers were left with their mothers. The other half of the heifers were raised the traditional way in calf hutches.

The calves were left on their mothers remained with them till weaning – about eight weeks – then were pulled off and put out to graze in their own paddocks.

“Some of the calves were nibbling on grass at two or three days old,” said Haugen. “I’m not sure if they were actually eating, but they were certainly mimicking their mothers.”

For the most part, the experiment had positive results, he said of the calves raised with their mothers. The calves had slick coats and somewhat fewer problems with illness. He said the illness levels were less noticeable than the growth differences – the calves left with their mothers were 3 to 4 inches larger than the bottle-fed calves.

Haugen said the process did require minor adjustments in labor, mostly to build some corrals for vaccinating the mother-raised calves.

Another difference he noticed was in “wilier” nature of the calves raised with their mothers.

“They’re not exceedingly wild, but they’re very wary,” he said. “It’s a little harder to get them collected, but they’re still approachable. It’s certainly much easier to catch a bottle-fed calf, but I don’t think it’s going to be a problem in the long run.”

Haugen, who grew up on a dairy, also serves as a county extension educator with the University of Wisconsin. For the past 11 years he and his wife, Bonnie, have operated a grass-based dairy on the Iowa-Minnesota border 40 miles west of Compton, Minn. They run 100 head of Jersey-Holstein crosses, adding a third cross with Norwegian Red.

So what does Haugen think of using behavioral principles to manage his grass-based dairy?

“In the spring of 2005,” he said, “we’ll do all of them that way,” and he’s spreading the word about what he’s doing.

And what about losing marketable milk to hungry calves.

“We use expensive milk replacer anyway,” he said, “so we figure it’s a tradeoff.”