Monday, June 20, 2011

What I Would Ask Laura Ingalls Wilder: Green Acres Weekend Update

Our big dilemma this week has been when to wean our 6-week-old calves off milk replacer.  Last Saturday we took a 20+ mile drive out to a co-op to buy three more bags, and found that the price had gone up $12 per bag!  While we don't want to skimp and want to ensure that the calves get the protein they need, we also need to consider the financial viability of raising beef cattle in this manner.

From all the research we've done, the industry standard is to wean the calves at around six weeks.  By this time, the calves should have been on something called "calf starter," which is grain, and cheaper than milk replacer.  After they're weaned, their calf starter ration increases and continues until they're about six months old, at which time they're put on pasture.  The crux of this method seems to be the claim that the calf's rumen is not fully developed at birth, and they are therefore not able to get the nutrients they need from grass.

So the questions that remain are:
1. When is a cow's rumen "developed" enough to put them on pasture?  I couldn't find a definite answer anywhere.  Our calves have been eating grass since they were about two weeks old, and they're very healthy.
2. When can we wean them from milk replacer?  Cows are not designed to eat grain, so we're not going the route of calf starter.

In one of the Little House on the Prairie books, one of Laura's chores is to milk the cow and then reserve some of the milk to feed to the baby calf, who has been separated from the mother so that the family can have milk, too.  This is a method we are thinking of implementing at some point, but no one does this anymore.  Left with the mother, a calf might nurse for a year!  But how long did Laura go through this process?  I imagine they didn't feed the cows any grain back then, and cows can get protein from being on rotated pasture (another method used in the old the form of picket lines instead of portable electric fencing).  It's unfortunate that these ways have been lost to current generations.  Since Laura and those of her generation have all passed, we feel that these methods need to be rediscovered by those of us without much experience or animal science degrees, but who believe that cows are designed to eat grass, not grain.

If anyone out there has been in our shoes, I'd love some advice!

This week we also completed the portable hen house, which we're currently using as a brooder:

At 4:00 a.m. Sunday morning, we discovered a couple roof leaks.  I picked up some metal roofing caulk yesterday, which we hope will remedy the problem.
Speaking of chicks, they are one week old now and are developing adult feathers and getting big, especially the Cornish Cross.  In fact, these meat birds are so lazy that they sometimes sit down while they eat!  We also think we found a nice home for Napoleon...we'll be transferring him to his final place of exile on Wednesday.  And despite the brooder lamp burning out sometime early this morning (always have an extra bulb or two!), we've only lost one Cornish Cross, who just dropped dead for no apparent reason the second day we had them.

This week I will try to sneak in a blog or two about the rain barrels.  We got 2.5" of rain the other night, which FILLED THE ENTIRE SYSTEM...220 GALLONS!  In fact, the intake barrel got so heavy that it tipped back against the house and I gave myself a nice slap on the hand for blowing off installing the overflow spout.

I've also spent some quality time trying to eradicate squash bugs and their evil little eggs in the garden...more on that later.

I'm linking up with Homestead Revival's Barn the button below to check it out!


  1. I have so many questions for Laura myself. :)
    Good luck with the weaning dilemma.
    Visiting you from the Barn Hop.

  2. Well, I was raised with a family milk cow, that we took the calf and feed it as a child, I would have to ask my mother if there was any reason other then Grandpa did it that way but for us, it was around 12 to 16 weeks that the calf was weaned.

    I myself am currently raising my own family milk cow, who I hope to have for many years and so I kept her on milk till ten months just as a mother cow would on average (of with all the hay and then pasture she wants)

    When the time comes to raise her own little ones, I will most likely keep the calf for butcher till 4 months on the milk.

    As you are wanting to butcher the calf's, it does matter as much if you wean them early, as long as it does not cause ill health effect currently, if you are wanting to keep any of them for breeding or milking, I would from my research consider going longer.

  3. I have a friend who takes their baby goats away from the mother right after they are born. They milk the goats then bottle feed the babies. That way they have goat milk for themselves and milk for the babies too. I don't know how long they bottle feed them. I don't know how different they are from the cows though!

  4. the little house on the prarie books have always been my favorite set of books! so many questions i would have for her too! Sorry I can't help you with the calf, I'm a country girl stuck in the city :0)

  5. Thanks for the comments/advice! Farmgal - our gut feeling has been to wean by 3 months, so it sounds like from your experience, we're not too far off.

  6. Yeah Farmgal- thanks! Our first dairy cow is due to calf in a week or two and we are going the old fashioned route and have been wondering about the logistics of weaning especially when we drove by an saw a year old heifer still going at her mother the other day...

  7. My sister in law has one milk cow and takes the newborn calf away from the mother as soon as its born, milks the cow and bottle feeds the calf. She is certain this is the ONLY CORRECT WAY TO DO IT! It seems like an awful lot of work but she will not entertain any suggestions that there are other ways it can be done. The logic is this provides the most milk for human consumption.

  8. Why not let the cow stay with mom during the day, separate them at night, and milk her in the morning? Then you can put them back together. Seems like it would be a lot easier, cheaper, and healthier all around. I have read about people doing this with goats, why not cows?