Nurse Cows

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Use of a Nurse cow, usually of a dairy breed, to raise calves, especially dairy calves and orphaned (or "bum") calves can be a great way to reduce labor and ensure better nutrition and care than what is often possible for "bottle calves."

Some claim that a good milk cow can raise up to 16 calves per lactation in four groups of four calves - each nursing for a minimum of 6 weeks until they are able to eat plenty of hay and other feed. Six weeks is not ideal for the health of the calf but it is considered an economic minimum.

Calves are left in a pen with a single cow to "graft" them onto her for a 7-10 days. During this time the health of the calf needs to be carefully observed.

Holterholm Organic Dairy Farm in Maryland

Ron's Nurse Cows

Ron’s Nurse Cows

By Rachel Gilker / March 17, 2014 / 1 Comment

Using nurse cows can be a money saving way to raise and feed dairy calves. Here are some tips for making it work at your place. Share Print Email At Holterholm Farms, an organic dairy farm in Maryland, the calves are raised on nurse cows. Of the 130 cows calving this year, 20 will be used as nurse cows. Ron Holter and his son, Adam Holter, choose the nurse cows by picking those that don’t quite fit the bill for milking. Here’s a note from Ron explaining their system:

We choose the cows that might have a high SCC (somatic cell count), or don’t work so well in the parlor with a nasty temperament or slow to let her milk down, or maybe she’s a three-titter that doesn’t fit the milkers too well.

Each nurse cow covers about 2 and a half calves. Younger three titters and first calf heifers get two calves, and four titters and mature three titters each get three calves.

A Holterholm nurse cow watches over her charges. A Holterholm nurse cow watches over her charges. We graft the calves onto the nurse cow after they nurse from their momma for 12-24 hours. The nurse cow calved the same day as they were born, so the calves continue to get colostrum until the nurse cow naturally stops producing it.

We attempt to keep the nurse cow and calves separate for a week to week and a half before they are joined together with other nurse cows and calves so they are bonded to their new nanny. The nurse cows and calves graze on a separate rotation at the far end of the farm and usually wean at 6 to 7 months of age. Depending on whether the nurse cow lets her milk down or not we milk her or dry her off. The nurse cows are usually pretty thin so most get dried off to put on condition before winter.

We have been using nurse cows for 5 or 6 years. We had heard a lot of talk about leaving calves with their mommas and decided to tweak that with using nurse cows in another group to utilize cows that might not be useful in their parlor system.

Calf health is phenomenal! Labor costs are minimal, 5 to 10 minutes per day to feed 50 calves. An absolute fantastic way to raise calves.

Take care,