|The original 2008 $5 calves|
Buy calves direct from a dairy if you possibly can
I have purchased these cows at auction, and I've purchased them direct from a dairy, and if you can do it, I suggest finding a local dairy and buying direct. You get to ask questions about the calf, and what you really want to know is that the calf stayed on the mom for at least 24 hours to get a good dose of colostrum, a special milk that gives the calf an immune boost by drinking it. More time, a couple or three days, is even better, but dairies sell the colostrum milk too, and get a good price for it, so they'll typically pull the calf off very soon.
If you can't buy direct, use the crowd knowledge of the auction. If you're the only bidder on an animal, it's probably not a good choice. You want bright eyed and "shiny" -- clean fur and no evidence of diarrhea, and the older a calf you can get the better. 7 days old is a lot better than 1 day. It's worth paying more for a bigger started calf. Many dairies contract with someone and don't sell their calves individually, but you can often find the contractor and buy a calf from them, too.
Dairy bull calves won't be as efficient converting feed to meat as a beef calf would be. So if you're in the position of buying food for your calf, you want to consider starting with a beef breed, not a dairy. But if you have grass and can handle the bottle feeding for the first couple of months, there's no reason that a dairy steer wouldn't make a good addition to you and your families table.
So I'm pretty formal about my calves these days; I use calf-domes (the actual brand-name is polydome ), the current model is pictured below.
You can do this with a little plywood box or a stall, too. When I'm raising calves, it's just as easy to raise 3 or 4 of them vs just 1, and so I'll just make a row of calf domes, with the doors facing each other. The cows watch the other cows and moo at each other and keep each other company.
For feed I use a bale of good alfalfa ($9 or so) and give them a portion of a flake each day, and then some calf manna (kinda expensive feed, but the calves do like it, $0.75/lb) and I use a dairy-based milk replacer for the milk. Milk replacer can also be made out of blood, and it's probably good feed, but I just stick to the milk-based.
It takes about a whole 50lb sack of milk replacer per calf to bring it to weaning age; a sack of milk replacer is $99 or so retail around here, so here's the cost-to-weaning age for 2014:
Milk replacer: $99
new 3 quart bottle $10
Calf dome: $50 (figure that 1/3rd of the cost per year. they do break)
Giving a cost-to-wean of $349.
Note that I'm not including any expense for labor. If you're doing this for your own table or as a hobby, well, well all enjoy our hobbies. If you're checking this out as a business, figure 30 minutes a day total. 15 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes in the evening, and rebedding the cows about every 2 to 3 weeks at an hour, for 3 months. As you're probably thinking, labor raises the cost of this calf pretty substantially at any wage. The only way you have a chance to reduce labor is to raise a lot of calves all at once.
Raising your own may not make economic sense
So if weaned calves in your area are selling for $349 or less -- or roughly $1/lb live weight - you won't save any money by raising your own, you'll be money ahead by buying one already weaned. It only makes sense for me to do this because calf prices are crazy-high right now. I'm seeing 300lb dairy-cross calves at the auction for $2 and higher per pound, live weight.
I purchase my calves in the early spring; first or second week of march. I want them to be weaned about the time that my grass is growing great, and I want them to be on that great grass through spring, summer and fall.
Cows eat all year - even in winter. Buy your hay smart
In the middle of the summer, when it's hot and everyone is haying, I'll purchase hay to keep these calves over winter. I figure that each calf needs about 50lbs of hay per day (or they will by the time fall rolls around) and that I'll have to keep them on hay from october to april, which is roughly 6 months, or 180 days.
50x180 = 9000lbs, or roughly 4.5 tons of hay per cow for winter hay.
Last summer hay was selling for $40 for a 600lb bale, which works out to be about $133/ton. Now you guys who are buying hay for your horses are probably thinking that's pretty cheap hay -- and it is. But it's a bit of work. First, it's second or third cutting orchard grass, and I'm picking it up out of the field. They'll load it for me, but it's my truck and trailer. Second, I'm paying cash and this is a negociated price. Other folks who are buying the same hay are paying more, but for the quantity I'm buying and working to their production schedule, I get a lower overall price. If you're buying hay from a feed store you are going to have very expensive beef by winters end.
Remember to buy your hay when it's being produced, and to store it somewhere. 50lbs/steer/day allows for some wastage. I stack my hay on pallets so that the air can circulate under the pile, and I tarp it well.
Beef for $1/lb
So cost-to-wean at $349, hay at $600, and that gets me to their second spring. Out they go on grass again, and I'll slaughter them in august or september while they're still on the best grass of the year. At the end of this, I'll get a hanging weight of 800lbs at a cost of $949 (again ignoring labor, equipment, etc).
I've learned that grass-fed beef, for me, is a seasonal product. Like an peach, you want to harvest at the right time. for me, 18-20 months and on very good forage is the start of many very good meals.
I'm raising 12 calves this year; 11 dairy heifers and 1 holstein bull calf. The bull calf will be my families and relatives beef in the fall of 2016. the last holstein beef I raised we just butchered two weeks ago.
I choose to raise holsteins because they have white-colored fat. Jersey bull calves and other dairy breeds have varying degrees of yellow fat that appears when they're grass fed. They all taste fine, but in the event that I give someone a steak, or sell a quarter or half, with holsteins there is nothing to explain: the beef looks like americans have been taught that beef appears. With jersey or other yellow-fat cows, there's some education to do, so I just skip them. They are cheaper, however.