How the Baby Calves are Treated at the Dairy Farm

How the Baby Calves are Treated at the Dairy Farm


The most important job at the dairy

Taking care of the babies is one of the most important jobs on the dairy farm. In fact, dairymen have a lot of incentive to take care of baby calves, and treat them proper. The baby calves are essentially the future of the dairy farm. If they are treated poorly, it will ultimately affect their future productivity. Financial incentives aside, it’s also the right thing to do. Dairymen are animal lovers. If they didn’t love animals, they wouldn’t be taking care of animals.

In order to prove that dairies take great care of the babies, I thought I would just talk about how we take care of the babies at our farm.

The babies get a new home

Baby CalfHome sweet home

After the babies are born, they are separated from their mother, and get their very own playpen. Some would see this as cruel, but really it’s for the well being of the baby calf.

Some mothers are very careless, so separating them protects them from any physical harm. They could be stepped on by other cows, or the mom could lay on the baby. So separating keeps them safe from physical harm in their cozy little hutch.Babies going home

Their playpen also protects them from disease. During the first few weeks, the babies have a very weak immune system. At that point in time, they are very susceptible to diseases. So keeping them separated from one another, keeps them safe from contagious diseases.

We have a little trailer that the calves ride on to go to their little pens. In the picture, my brother is bringing the newborns to their new pens. The pens are filled with straw to make them warm and dry. The pens also have roofs that flip up and down depending on the weather. Flip them down, and no rain gets in. Open them up, and the refreshing breeze blows in.

Feeding the babies

The babies are fed milk two times per day. The newborns get colostrum. Colostrum is the first milk produced by the cows after they have their babies. It’s some of the most nutrient dense milk you can find. It’s filled with beneficial immumuglobulins, growth factors, and antibodies that promote a healthy immune system, and also oligosaccharides that promote healthy bacteria growth in the calves digestive system. We feed them colostrum for the first couple days; it helps jump start the calves immune system.


**A bucket of colostrum, you can tell its much more thick and creamy than regular milk**

Calf Milk Pasteurizer

**The pasteurizer, same type of system is used to pasteurize the milk you’ll find in the store**

After getting colostrum for the first few days, the calves then get milk. The milk we give them is pasteurized just like the milk you would buy in the store. We have a pasteurizer on the farm to make sure the milk is clean of any harmful bacteria. The last thing we want to do is to expose the babies to any bacteria that could make them sick. If the calf gets sick, it dramatically affects their growth for the rest of their lives.

   Feeding the babies

**The milk trailer we use to feed the babies**

We have a little milk trailer that we use to feed the babies. Each calf gets a gallon of milk twice a day. The trailer is pretty handy. The tank has a hose that extends to fill each bucket with milk. Each baby has their own milk bucket.

We teach the calves to drink from the bucket as soon as we can. Surprisingly, many of them catch on quick, however there are some slow learners. For these, we use a nipple bucket to feed them while they are learning. Any calf that doesn’t drink by herself gets help. That’s where my sisters come in and help them out.

Feeding the baby calves   Calves

Growing Up

The babies also get some grain. The grain has a lot of nutrients, and protein to help them grow strong. The grain also helps stimulate the development of their rumen. When calves are born they have an esophageal tube that allows the milk to bypass the calves rumen, and go directly to the stomach. With time though, this groove closes and the calf is then able to eat grass and other forages. This usually takes a few months. It’s at this point that the calves stop drinking milk. Then they get a grown up diet of hay and silage.

The calves usually stay in their pens for just a few weeks, then they move to a group pen so they can play with their friends. By this time, they have very strong immune systems, and are very healthy.

Waiting for food

Everything we do at the dairy is done for a reason. We treat the babies very well; the future of our dairy depends on it. I’m planning to continue this series so you can see how the cows are treated throughout their lives at the farm. If you have questions about any of this stuff, as always, feel free to post them below!

The calves grow into heifers! You can read about heifer care at the dairy farm here.


  1. How many cows do you calve – it looks like a lot, Speaking as someone who carries buckets of milk to 130 calves in a season, you look to have a fairly efficient system 🙂

    • Haha ya it definitely keeps us busy. We have anywhere from 10 to 20 newborns each day. Our little milk wagon is a lifesaver though. I can’t imagine carrying milk to them everyday. I give you props for that haha 🙂

  2. I live in Chandler, AZ & drive by a baby cow operation all the time. I noticed that there is always standing water in the newborn pen area. This doesn’t seem like it would be healthy for the little newborn calves. I presume it is from hosing out the pens with water to keep them clean. I was wondering how you keep the cows/young bulls hoofs healthy when they are basically standing in their own wet dirt regularly urinated on. It seems like ammonia would form and other nasty chemicals that would be bad for their health in general–it seems like even their lungs would be affected by breathing these fumes, & especially their hooves and even their skin when they lie down to sleep at night which they all do? Also to me it seems so awful that the only place they have to lie down and sleep at night is in that nasty wet excrement covered dirt. That’s the fate of the cows I see near my house in AZ. I don’t know how they can keep the cows healthy. Also are you legally allowed to feed them back their own poop after it is put in those piles with the plastic tightly covering it? It seems like parasites, bacteria, & viruses would become a problem. For some reason dairy farming has always been interesting to me–please fill in this “city girl’s” long- time questions & curiosity😊🐂

    • Christine, on no, there shouldn’t be water in the newborn area. If they are cleaning the pens the water may be outside but, they probably keep the actual pens clean and dry. We put fresh bedding 1-2 times per week using sand or straw. We like sand in the summer because it’s cooler and straw in the winter because it’s warmer. The goal is to keep the environment clean and reduce the calves exposure to bacteria. The first 1-3 months the calves immune systems are still developing so it’s important to give them the best care during that period. The corrals are actually cleaner than you think, the sun composts the manure and the hoof action stirs and accelerates the composting process. Composting actually kills bacteria. The cow’s hooves are quite hard and resilient. If you’ve ever walked in the corrals, you would notice how soft the compost is to walk and lay on- much better than hard dirt. Oh no, those piles with the plastic are actually feed – not compost. Farms will harvest the grass and pile it up, pack it tight, and cover it with white or black plastic usually held down with tires. The grass begins a fermentation process that keeps the grass good all year long. The absence of oxygen keeps the mold and harmful bacteria from growing. And the farm will have feed all year long then

  3. I can see the water in the newborn area even in the winter I think I’ve seen it. It is definitely in the small building where the little pens are– I’m sure of that. It may not be in the actual pens, but in the aisles– which would be weird as the workers would have to walk thru it, etc. How would they be using hoses and water without it affecting the little newborns adversely? Something seems not right. Also it doesn’t seem like what you describe as composting would occur where the cows are as I think they scrape that out with front loaders,etc. I just don’t see how that wouldn’t affect their skin and overall health– esp. the urine just all over the dirt. Also it seems like if we ask a question you should use first names only here.

    • It’s hard for me to explain without seeing it – some farms elevate the pens so that the waste will fall to the floor then be flushed with water underneath. For the cows, there is usually an eating lane where the cows will come in to eat and that lane will also be flushed. The flushing is usually done with recycled water. Most dairies try to reduce the amount of water they use. So sometimes these lanes are scraped mechanically. Check out this post for pictures You may not see these barns in Arizona though, many of the dairies are open because the weather is less dynamic. But the same concepts but without the roof.

  4. Why do you wean right away? It would be easier to let the calves drink milk right from their mother for the first six months. They like it better, too. Also, why do you pasteurize milk for cows? There are beneficial enzymes in milk that aid in digestion – these are killed with pasteurization. That’s why there are people these days who want unpasteurized milk for their own consumption. Seems like you are doing more work than you need to.

    • It would be much easier, but the death rate is much higher because nutrition is not as good. Some cows have lower quality milk and some cows have better quality milk. Older cows, for example, have more immunoglobulins and immune factors. And while pasteurization does kill some beneficial enzymes, there has been a lot of research that shows that pasteurization actually reduces a farm’s death rate. Letting nature take care of the calves is the easier road, but by putting in the extra work to improve the health of the animals, keep them in a clean environment, and make sure they are getting the proper amount of nutrition, you can do a better job than would occur naturally. I think it is worth it to put a bit more work into taking care of the animals. Many of today’s practices on farms have been developed in universities that spent time researching and measuring best practices.

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