eOrganic Video: Innovations on an Organic Dairy--Successful Calf Rearing on Pasture and Mob Feeder

eOrganic authors:

Kevin Jahnke, Jahnke Family Farm

Harriet Behar, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES)

Amanda Gervais, University of Vermont Extension


In this video, filmed by Harriet Behar of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), Dr. Guy Jodarski and Wisconsin organic dairy farmer Kevin Jahnke describe techniques for successfully raising organic calves.

Watch the video clip at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cnh5rMA0a4

Audio Text

Dr. Guy Jodarski: Hello, my name is Guy Jodarski and I’m a veterinarian with Organic Valley, starting my 24th year of practice, and I have been working with organic dairy farmers for about six or seven years.

Today, we are looking at Kevin Jahnke’s calves. Kevin is a seasonal producer and so he has a lot of cows that calf in a short period of time. The nice thing about this is he gets a group of calves that are close in age which makes raising a group of calves easier. Some of the things that Kevin is doing very well include feeding enough whole milk—that’s one thing we really need to do is feed enough whole milk to our calves, giving at least a gallon of milk both morning and night, that’s what we suggest for people with Holstein-size cattle – at least give a gallon or 4 quarts both morning and night. With Jersey-size cattle, 3 quarts. These are cross-bred with a lot of Jersey breed in them. They are about 2 months old at this point. What you will notice is that their body condition is excellent, they are very well grown both in their frame and internal organs—they are filling out quite nicely. This milk is really an important part of the issue here.

The other thing is, it is the grazing season, the grass is growing out there and these calves are on paddocks outside. Grazing is very important, and so we like to see forage into these calves right from day one. He rotates his paddocks which is very important for parasite control. You need to move the calves to new areas because internal parasites, the worms in particular with grazing are a big problem with organic cattle. The milk really helps keep worms down and so that’s important. We want to delay the weaning, taper off the milk rather than just stopping abruptly. We want this calf to adapt to the forage diet before we take that milk away.

Here you can see some of the calves walking out, notice how straight and tall they are, the legs and backs are straight. A lot of times we look at those as being genetic traits (which they are to some degree) but also nutrition really brings on the expression of those good genetics. Confirmation and form are really influenced by nutrition. There's nothing that really replaces that whole milk—it’s so important.

The other thing to notice is these calves are chewing their cud. These calves are two months old and are chewing their cud—Kevin has told me that they’ve been chewing their cud for over a month now. This is one issue that's somewhat controversial because some nutritionists will say that a calf will not develop rumen function without grain. These calves get very little grain—they get a little bit to carry kelp, they eat only a few ounces per day, they mostly eat forage and milk and they have excellent rumen development which is just what we see with calves that are on nurse cows or with beef calves, rumen development can occur without grain.

The amount of saliva that they actually swallow probably helps the digestion and also makes them feel satisfied so they don’t want to suck. If a calf drinks out of a pail and just wolfs that milk down in a hurry, there is a lot of volume there and yet it is not going to digest properly because it doesn’t have the saliva; it’s not natural for the calf to have a big bowl of milk like that. You think about a calf nursing on a cow, it’s going to take small meals several times per day. We go down to two times a feeding per day for managing our time but we need to make that calf drink that milk over a period of time.

Kevin Jahnke: We’ve got a lot of Jersey genetics in our cattle which means that just about every calf born has some horns. We like to dehorn the calves because they grow up with horns on the cows; that’s just not safe around us and the other cattle. In the past we’ve always used an electric dehorner as it seems to be the most humane method. It’s also nice because there is no blood. The time of year we needed to dehorn our calves was getting into fly season and so the dehorner was a pretty clean method.

Harriet Behar: Now these calves were dehorned a week ago?

Kevin Jahnke: About two weeks ago we dehorned them with the electric dehorner. The difference this year is that we used lidocaine as a nerve block. We gave them a shot of lidocaine (5 cc on each side), waited about five to ten minutes and dehorned the calves. It was amazing that most of the calves when going through the dehorning process were not tensed up at all. We’ve got a little cattle chute that we use for calves; they weren’t pulled back in the chute. I was telling Dr. Guy that when we dehorned the calves, there were actually a couple of calves that, while I was dehorning them, they were licking my leg and looking around like nothing was going on. It is definitely a humane way to go; I would recommend it.

Guy Jodarski: They are developing a herd social structure, all being together like this. They are used to being together and are very calm. They are very easy to approach because they are used to people coming to feed them and also moving them between the paddocks. I'd really like to point out these fences with the tape. They've got different paddocks here. There haven't been calves on this ground for a while; this is fresh ground. This is a concept that people need to keep in mind with calves -- get them on fresh ground and then keep them moving around. And offer them some good feed. You can see there is some very good quality grass here and they are going to eat and make good use of it. That will make the weaning of these calves so much easier; if they are going to get that rumen function going and are able to digest good quality grass, then weaning is not going to be such a problem.

The Mob Feeder

Kevin Jahnke: This is the barrel we are using this year to feed our calves. It would be described as a mob feeder, gravity-type system where the milk is above the nipples. There are other systems where the milk is drawn up a hose from the bottom of the barrel. I’ve tried both systems and both seem to work equally well. We just had trouble this year--when the calves are on the system with the hoses, they have to keep continuously sucking to keep that milk coming up the hose and if they stop, the milk falls down and they have to start over, it just seemed that some of the calves weren’t doing very well on that system and were getting frustrated and it ended up being like a ring-around-the-rosy type of deal around the feeder.

This is gravity-type system. The nipples are Milk BarTM brand nipples. The nipple is very important to feeding a calf especially in a system where you are putting a gallon of milk into that calf per feeding. A lot of farmers always believed that putting too much milk into a calf would make a calf sick but my experience of 20 years with beef cows and calves is you could see a beef cow with way more milk that what her calf was going to drink and the beef calves never ever get sick. The reason is that when the calf is drinking from a cow they are always getting the right ratio of saliva. What these nipples do is make that calf work for the milk. The milk doesn’t come out very easy and they’ve got to suck pretty hard. It takes them about ten minutes to drink, so during that time, they are creating a lot of saliva with that sucking action. That saliva actually begins the digestion process as the milk is hitting the stomach. The saliva is very, very important to a good, healthy calf. There are components in the saliva that actually pre-start the digestion process to make the milk clot up so that the calf and the abomasum can digest the milk without getting sick.

Harriet: What’s the bell about?

Kevin Jahnke: I attached a dinner bell on this. I’ve got a pump in the utility room that I pour the milk into. There’s a milk line that pumps the milk over here so I don’t have to carry it. Trying to carry 5 gallon buckets of milk in a group pen with 15 to 20 hungry calves doesn’t work very well. You get trampled. So the milk is pumped into this pipe here, hits the fly wheel and makes the bell ring. I did that because with the grazing system we have for the calves, there are times that they are 300 to 400 yards away from the building and when I start pumping the milk, they don’t know it. So I rigged up a bell system so that when the milk comes in, it rings the bell and it is the dinner bell. So the calves hear the bell and come running.

My wife and kids probably like our system of mob feeding over the nurse cows for the reason that everybody becomes a pet. That’s a nice way to be on a farm to have your cows come up to you and want to be around you.

Published May 2, 2012

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.