I was up north of my farm, attending a livestock auction in the hope of finding some pigs to buy. The trip was a bust for that purpose, but since i was up there, I checked the local craigslist for people selling pigs, and ran across an ad by Rachel. Rachel and her nephew Jesse both raise really nice pigs and I have to say that their hoop barn is spotless. It's really clear that they take great care of their pigs.
Rachels and Jesses pig operation shares a property with a replacement holstein heifer operation. They take small female dairy cows and raise them, eventually selling them to farms as milk cows.
So we're talking about pigs, and I asked some quesitons about the calves we were surrounded by, and Rachel mentioned that the price for calves had crashed -- you could buy a day-old calf for $5. A few years ago, she said, you could get $150 for the calf, but the price of feed was so scary this year that people weren't buying them to feed.
Dairy Steers are cheaper
You see, a dairy breeds take longer to reach market weight than do beef breeds. And that means you get fewer pounds of meat for your pounds of feed. It also means that you end up keeping the steer a little longer than you might with a beef breed -- and if it's important for you to get a quicker return, a dairy steer isn't quite as efficient.
But for $5, it seemed a bargain. So two weeks later I was driving back up there to pick up my first three calves and some surplus calf domes at the same time. It turns out that it's pretty easy to transport calves with a flatbed trailer. You strap the calf dome down, and put the calf in it, and that's it. I put down a bale of hay to provide cushioning and some warmth for the little guys, and off we went.
Cost so far: $5 for the calf. $80 per calf for a 50lb bag of milk replacer. $3 for a 2 quart nursing bottle. $15 for a bag of calf manna, and $15 for a very nice bale of alfalpha hay. And the calf dome for $190. Total of $308.00
Holstein steers vs Jersey steers
There are two common dairy cows in this country. If it's a commercial dairy, it's probably either a holstein based operation or a jersey based operation. I chose holstein steers because the fat is whiter on their carcass than the jersey cow. The taste is similar, but I prefer a white fat.
Where can you get low-cost calves?
Any dairy operation is going to have surplus male calves. Some farmers try to have their calves at the same time, others spread it out. Go ask your local dairy. In my case, the farmer was pleased to find someone who wanted to grow out the calves and not waste them. For $5 it wasn't really worth his time, and I felt kinda bad about the low price, so I salved my conscience later in the year by paying $20 for the next two.
Advantage in buying calves direct from the farmer
The first few hours of a calves life are pretty important. The most important part is that they get some colostrum from their mother before they're pulled off the cow. I wouldn't buy one of these calves from an auction for fear that it hadn't gotten the dose of colostrum and won't survive as a result. When you're dealing with a price this low you want to make it as easy for the farm as you can. If you get a call that he has calves, be prepared to go pick them up as soon as possible. The space taken by one of these little boys is usually sorely needed if a lot of cows are birthing, and the sooner you take it into your care the better it will do.
The basic chore is to warm 2 quarts of powered milk twice a day -- morning and evening -- and make sure that the calf has water and an increasing amount of calf feed and hay each day. With a calf dome it's about 5 minutes per day per calf. This is a chore that I'd say that an 8 to 10 year old could do pretty handily. Every week or so you need to throw in more bedding for the 3 months that they're in the calf dome. I use wood chips that I get for free from tree service companies in my area. I fill a 30 gallon garbage can with them, and then use a shovel to put a 3" layer of new chips down every week or 10 days.
In the last month of the 90 day weaning period you're offering less milk and calf feed, and more hay, transitioning them to a new diet. Correctly done, at the end of this they're ready to go on pasture. They still like calf feed.
This year each calf cost me $308 to wean. I've also put up 100 bales of hay per cow to supplement their pasture during the winter months, for another $200. In retrospect I should have purchased a round bale instead of small square bales. A round bale of the same weight would have been $40. My hard costs at the end of the year are $1/lb. Next year, since I'll be able to re-use the calf dome and I'll be smarter about buying hay, I'd expect my cost to be about 50 cents a pound for the 500-600lb cows I have now.
the cows and sheep are chowing down on spent grain from a local microbrewery. They love the stuff.