Expert Talks Raising Calves in Organic Dairies

3/22/2014 7:00 AM
By Helen Margaret Griffiths New York Correspondent

AUBURN, N.Y. — For any successful dairy operation, raising healthy calves to integrate into the herd is of great importance. At the recent NOFA-NY Organic Dairy and Field Crop Conference, Dr. Guy Jodarski, a veterinarian with Organic Valley CROPP — Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools — provided an abundance of information to assist the beginning or well-established organic dairy producer.

Jodarski emphasized the importance of the nutrition of dry cows, saying healthy calves are a result of healthy dry cows, and that he’s a strong believer of feeding kelp in the ration.

“I just can’t say enough good things about it,” Jodarski said.

Jodarski described a bedding method that may be new to some, but something he’s seen on a farm in Wisconsin. It uses newspaper and straw to provide a deep, dry bedding, something he believes can help with cleanliness.

“It seems that the first couple of groups of calves have no problems, and then issues start to appear,” Jodarski said.

Keeping manure levels down, he said, is important as this will help to control coccidia, which can be a major issue in young animals.

“There should be no manure on the animals’ tails,” he said, adding that Neema-Tox, an herbal dewormer, can be effective.

It’s important to get colostrum to calves in the first six hours. Jodarski believes that leaving the calf with the mother is important not just for the calf, but for the mother as well.

When thinking about the reasons beef calves do better than dairy calves, Jodarski thinks it could be due to the fact that beef calves live with their mother, eat grass and milk, and eat no grain. He said that some dairy producers are looking at raising dairy calves in a similar way to beef.

He doesn’t agree with using much grain. He is a strong believer in getting calves started on forage from day one; this way the rumen flora can be developed in as early as two months.

“Grass hay is preferable over alfalfa as it is more digestible, and feeding off the ground helps to reduce incidence of coccidia,” he said.

There are many different feeding methods, but Jodarski thinks mob feeding using nipple feeders is a good way to feed milk as the sucking encourages saliva production, which assists with digestion. Feeding two or three times a day rather than just once is desirable, he said, as it comes closer to mimicking mother/calf feeding. He recommends feeding whole milk rather than milk replacer and said that it should be followed with warm water.

As cows may be carrying Johne’s disease but not necessarily show symptoms, Jodarski said producers using milk from the bulk tank should test it for the causal agent as the bacteria can be shed into the milk. ELISA test kits can be purchased to perform the test fairly quickly. Unfortunately, Jodarski said the bacteria is very hardy and even with pasteurization, it will not be destroyed entirely.

Kefir, a fermented milk drink, has become quite popular. It is made from live kefir culture, and Jodarski believes it can be beneficial to cows, a belief supported by Mervin and Diana Johnson, farmers from Barron County, Wisc. The Johnsons feed whole-milk kefir to their calves. The calves are taken off their mother after two to three days and put on grass in groups of about 10. They are fed kefir for the next three months. The pens, which are on wheels, are moved a number of times a day to give the calves access to good quality grass and to reduce the build-up of manure and parasites.

Kefir is believed to have originated in the Caucasus Mountains of central Europe and Asia, and is made from “kefir grains,” which can be bought as dry grains from health food stores or online. But Jodarski said that getting live culture from a fellow farmer is best, and is also cheaper. Even though it is extra work to have kefir for the calves, both the Johnsons and Jodarski believe that feeding it all the time and not just as a remedy will result in more thrifty calves. Kefir contains many beneficial micro-organisms that enhance the health of the digestive system.

Adequate fresh water is also essential for cattle, and Jodarski emphasized the importance of locating the water supply away from electric fences, especially if the tanks are metal.

Worms can be an issue with calves and herbal de-wormers are available. However, as the life cycle of the worms is about a month and most of it happens outside the animal, Jodarski believes that with good pasture management, this will result in good worm control and little need for animal treatments.

Jodarski said that the major cause of pneumonia is stress and that reducing stress is critical for reducing incidence. After the initial colostrum and vaccinating, he said providing adequate nutrition and minerals is important, and he believes kelp and humates are helpful in building a strong immune system.

“Ventilation is very important. We recommend fresh, dry air, without drafts; bringing cattle indoors isn’t always best,” he said, giving examples of farms where producers were having good results producing healthy calves using a structure with shade cloth on the sides. The cloth not only provided good ventilation, but also reduced draft, which he said is very important. “Calves cannot tolerate draft, and should have deep bedding for nesting.”

There are many options for bedding. Jodarski said he was pleased with what he was seeing with sand as it drained very well and was providing good fly control, which is good for cow comfort and to control humidity.

Controlling ringworm can be done by giving vitamins A, D and E. He also said that putting goats alongside calves with ringworm helped control the calf ringworm.

Pink eye can occur in calves, and Jodarski recommended kelp as it is good at controlling bacteria.

He also talked briefly on the pros and cons of cow/calf pairing, which is becoming popular in the southern part of the U.S., and nurse cow groups. A major benefit from cow/calf pairing is that calves take readily to grazing, but milking can be an issue, and producers should not wait too long to wean.

With nurse cow groups, the producer needs to spend time with the animals, otherwise they can become quite wild and difficult to handle during milking. Jodarski said this can be a good way to socialize calves and is especially valuable if there are bulls on the farm.

In closing, Jodarski made some comments on dehorning, suggesting that producers use polled bulls where possible.


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9/1/2014 | Last Updated: 6:46 PM