Providing your own meat and dairy products are great ways to become more self-sustainable. It just so happens that both can come from raising cows.
The initial cost (not including feed or vet bills) of buying a cow can be quite the investment. Luckily there is an alternative; you can start with a bottle calf or two. A bottle calf can grow into a cow that will provide you with beef for the year, the family milk cow, or even the start of your own herd.
In this post Pam of Learning to Be Me, a fellow blogger and dear friend, shares her adventure being a first-time bottle calf mama. Enjoy the journal of her experiences and the tips given at the end of the post. This should help you get an idea of what it is like raising a bottle calf of your own!
Pros and Cons of Raising a Bottle Calf
Before you go out and find your bottle calf, it is a good idea to see what it will be like caring for your calf and understand there are pros and cons to raising one.
- A small investment to start a herd of your own
- The cost of calves is cheaper than cows
- Great way to socialize a calf that you are planning on keeping
- Good start to halter breaking
- Able to control how your calf grows into a cow
- If used for meat you must keep it around longer
- It is easier to become attached before butchering (if used for meat)
- Calves can be unintentionally dangerous as they grow (mistaking you for a cow)
First Time Bottle Calf Mama Adventure
Thursday, January 3, 2013 – Happy New Year!
Have you heard the saying, “Be careful what you wish for?”
I should edit that to, “Be careful what you mention to a farmer!”
Early in December (2012) I mentioned to a new farmer friend that we might want to raise a bottle calf this year for beef. Of course, I was speaking way ahead of being ready for said bottle calf and truly had no thought of this happening until MUCH later in 2013.
So guess who calls on December 31?!
This farmer had a cow that had delivered twins and was rejecting the female calf. He was taking care of the calf that night but REALLY wanted someone else to take her the next day. He reminded me that she would be sterile due to a twin pregnancy with a male/female combo. A little research tells me that the female from this set of twins is sterile 92% of the time. In other words, she is destined to be a beef cow.
I battled the pros and cons all night. I tend to work out dilemmas while I sleep. When I got up I was certain the correct answer was “no” since we simply weren’t ready, not to mention It’s WINTER!
Then I went outside for chores. The sun was bright and glorious. I could sense God’s hope and blessing.
When next I talked with the farmer, I said “yes”. He didn’t waste any time bringing her and a bottle over to me. She wasn’t as vigorous as I had hoped when she arrived, but she was ok. She had just been fed, so we snuggled her into a stall to rest for about an hour.
When I went to feed her, she was chilled and very weak. She couldn’t stand up or drink from the bottle. All my medical background and Mommy instincts kicked in.
I picked her up and took her directly into the house. We set up our ICU in the laundry room (which just happens to be my sewing nook, too!) We warmed up hot packs and bundled her in blankets. I started dripping warm colostrum (saved in the freezer from when our Jersey delivered in September) down her throat with a turkey baster (thanks Dorothy). She couldn’t even struggle. Sometimes her eyes would roll back and I was sure she was dying. She had no muscle tone.
I called my Mom and asked for prayer. I knew it would be a miracle from God if she survived the night.
This process all started around 4 pm. At 9 pm she pulled her legs up under her. Minutes later she stood up….wobbly, but up. We put a dog crate in the laundry room and tucked her in with blankets.
The next morning she was alive! She even gave a little moo when I went in to feed her. She took milk from my trusty turkey baster, but couldn’t suck from a bottle. Around 3 pm on January 2, she took the last bit of her first quart of colostrum. It had taken nearly 24 hours to get just one quart in her. I knew she would get dehydrated if we didn’t pick up the pace a bit. Then another miracle occurred! She latched onto the nipple of my calf bottle and started sucking. The next thing I knew, she had drained her 2nd quart of colostrum! Praise God! I broke out in songs of praise. What a victory!
Thursday, January 17, 2013 – Rough Start
Our little New Year’s bottle calf has had a rough time getting a foothold in this world. At one week of age, her umbilical stump was obviously infected. She was exhausted and puny. The vet gave me an arsenal of shots to give her including antibiotics, an anti-inflammatory, and Vit B. She perked right up! Hooray! Then about 5 days later, she tanked again. This time with a respiratory infection. She became fairly lifeless and I thought she might die.
The calf doesn’t seem offended that Bambi has to be restrained in a steel headgate before she will allow her to nurse! I believe she is thinking, “Rich, creamy milk…Who cares how you get it!!”
Sunday, February 10, 2013 – Drive a Calf Day
So any guesses as to what I’ve been hauling in my van?
Sunday, March 10, 2013
Growing big and strong. We are still battling the umbilical infection.
This infection necessitated yet another van ride to the vet about 3 weeks ago to incise and drain the abscess again. Apparently, abscesses can reach quite deep and are difficult to cure….(Bob and I can testify to that!)
Tuesday, May 28, 2013 – Healed and Pushy Bottle Calf
I’ve been afraid to say this out loud, but I think it’s safe to proclaim that Bob the Bottle calf’s navel abscess is healed!! ALL the Glory goes to God! He blessed me with a great vet with lots of ideas, who also respected my thoughts and observations. God gave me patience and endurance to doctor Bob’s wound twice daily for about 3 1/2 months. God also put my previous training as a nurse to good use.
Shortly after the infection healed, I had to make an executive decision and wean Bob away from Bambi (my Jersey milk cow). I really wanted to let her nurse the end it was most definitely God who strengthened Bob and gave me the courage to let the abscess heal over and encapsulate (this flies totally in the face of all that past training!). I still check Bob’s belly periodically and have to sing a little verse of praise every time I realize that the infection has resolved!!
Bob was starting to scare me. That probably sounds strange….I’ll try to explain. Because of so much handling by me, on some level, Bob thinks of me as her mother. This leads to a myriad of problems since Bob rapidly outgrew me in size and strength. As long as Bob nursed I needed to lead her in and out of Bambi’s paddock (unless we didn’t want any milk that day).
Bob grew really pushy with me….literally. She would no longer walk at my side, instead, she shadowed right behind me and tried to bump me along with her head. She would even come running up in the pasture and start head bumping me to get my attention. Trust me, she had it. It gave me the creeps and I started being fearful for myself and my kids, too.
December 2013 – Happy, Healthy Heifer
Bob continues to be strong and healthy. She now weighs about 600 pounds. She is an easy keeper and maintains her weight and condition well on pasture and hay, being fully grass-fed.
Unfortunately, she still thinks I’m her mama. This sounds kind of cute, but in reality, it’s quite dangerous. Cows use their heads and the strength of their necks to bump each other, push one another around, and even charge to get another cow out of their way. Because Bob relates to me as a cow, she tries to push and bump me with her head. She also gets excited when she sees me in the pasture and runs to “greet” me. I’m thankful that this behavior doesn’t get exhibited with any other members of our family. I’ve learned to be very cautious in the pasture and work near the fence.
Top Tips for Raising a Bottle Calf
Choose a Healthy Bottle Calf
Colostrum at birth, especially during the first 24 hours of life, is the key to long-term health and survival. The colostrum is filled with antibodies and nutrition that help build a strong, healthy immune system. During the first 24 hours, the gut is fully open and ready to absorb those antibodies. Here is a really good article about colostrum, antibodies, and the gut.
Ideally, a bottle calf will spend it’s first few days (a week is even better!) with it’s mother getting all the colostrum it needs. But if the mother died or if she is being used as a milk cow, the calf may not have gotten this luxury. Be sure and confirm that the calf was with its mother for initial colostrum OR that the calf was given colostrum by bottle right away after birth.
This is key.
Ask About Your Bottle Calf’s Background
The more information you have about your new calf the better. You will want to ask about the mother’s vaccine history and especially if she was given a CD/T vaccine (prevents overeating disease and provides tetanus) within thirty days of giving birth. Some vaccines will carry over from mother to calf, which can help you determine your own vaccine schedule.
Be Prepared for Your Bottle Calf
This is really a tie with #1. You need to be prepared for the arrival of your calf.
You will need:
- a calf bottle (like this one)
- colostrum if taking calf as newborn
- fresh milk or milk replacer
- shelter for inclement weather–cows typically don’t require much in the way of shelter, but remember that a bottle calf is already stressed without its mama, so you want to protect it from any harsh weather.
Create a Feeding Schedule
Calves are always hungry and usually will never turn down a meal. To prevent your calf from overeating you will want to create a feeding schedule. Your calf will probably only need 2-3 bottles spread throughout the day.
Feeding too much can cause your calf to develop scours. Scours is diarrhea in young calves and if left untreated can cause severe dehydration. To avoid any feed-related issues it is best to come up with a schedule that works for you and your new bottle calf.
If You Have a Milk Cow Use Her
If you are blessed to have a family milk cow, get her in on the action!
When your milk cow delivers her own calf, save some of her colostrum; in the deep freezer. Don’t think that you are robbing her calf of these precious nutrients. Your milk cow produces an over-abundance of colostrum those first days, so store some away.
Give your bottle calf fresh milk from your family milk cow. This will be a huge savings and is, of course, packed with the best nutrition.
Consider letting the calf nurse your milk cow when she is secured in the milking stanchion.
Allow calf to pasture with your milk cow. One of the ways that mama cow’s identify their calf is by the smell of its stool….by giving the bottle calf milk from your milk cow, your bottle calf will start to smell like her calf. This aides in the adoption process.
Cows are Herd Animals
Your bottle calf will do best growing up with other herd animals. Some people raise 2 bottle calves together to accomplish this. You can also raise your calf with horses, sheep, or goats if you don’t have another cow around to befriend it.
Don’t Get Attached If You are Not Keeping It
I wish I could tell you that this is easy, but it’s not. Calves are cute! Your bottle calf doesn’t have a mother and you may feel compelled to fill this need. Resist!
Because of Bob’s poor initial health status, I handled and mothered her entirely too much. I hope you will learn from my mistake.
Also, remember that getting attached will only complicate the situation when it comes time to haul away your grown cow–either selling to someone else or taking it to the meat processor. Most homesteaders raise a bottle calf with plans to use the meat themselves. You will be better able to carry out this plan if you get the bottle calf out into the pasture with other animals asap and let him have a healthy “cow” life.
So will our family raise another bottle calf? Yes, most likely. Will I follow my own advice? I sure hope so!
About the Author
Are You Ready to Raise Your First Bottle Calf?
Cows can be an expensive addition to your homestead and a bottle calf might be a better alternative. Bottle calves can be a smaller investment that allows you to control the way they are raised from the very beginning. Keep in mind that they are cute, require work, and also can be a complete handful.
Learn More About Cows on the Homestead:
- How to Train a Heifer to Become a Family Milk Cow
- Owning a Family Milk Cow: Your Questions Answered
- Caring for a Cow and Her Calf After Delivery
- Are Twin Cows Sterile?