Wednesday, May 6, 2009

$5 calf -- 2009 version

Each year I raise a few bottle-fed dairy steers for my own consumption. So here's the 2009 version of that. You can see the original version here, with a followup on locating calves here.

Dairy steers are a byproduct of the dairy industry. A cow has to get pregnant to produce milk, and half the calves produced are male. So there's a constant supply of day-old dairy calves that you can either buy or sometimes are free. When you're buying these calves you have to be ready to pick them up and get them into your care as soon as possible. Dairymen regard the male calves as a nuisance, and are usually annoyed to have them even a few hours longer than necessary.

Right now (May, 2009) the price paid per hundred pounds of milk is under the cost to produce it by at least 25%. This sort of inbalance usually results in dairy herd reductions, so the calves might be a little harder to find.

With that said, calf prices have gone up a little; from $5 to $15. Milk replacer, powdered milk mix in 50lbs bags has gone up, from $80 to $85. Hay prices have gone down, from $200 a ton to $140 a ton, calf starter is a little more expensive; $380 a ton from $350 a ton.

This raises the estimated cost to wean from last years $113 to this years estimated $130. That's still a fairly good deal for a 3 month old weaned calf. All figures are materials only, not including labor. The labor is about 5 minutes a day per calf, consisting of warming and mixing the milk replacer and filling the nursing bottle for the calf.

So what's it like to get a dairy steer?

They're pretty big to start with. Big and wobbly. Usually I get them still wet from being born, and shaky and really eager and uncoordinated. I rub them down with some straw I bring, and get them packed into the truck. You want a canopy or a trailer with a top; they're still babies, and pretty susceptible to cold. As soon as I get them to the farm I put them into a prepared calf shelter and immediately warm a bottle for the calves. Getting some warm milk into them soon seems to help, but not too much. For the first few feedings I'll do a quart or so. Don't want them to scour.

The drill is a bottle morning and evening. A half quart to start, increasing to 2 quarts a day by a month old. They'll want it warmed to start, but by three or four weeks they'll take it cold, too. Its easier to get the powdered milk replacer to dissolve in warm water.
They have a bucket of water and a small amount of calf manna available to them at all times; gradually they'll eat more and more. After a month, you start putting a little alfalfa in the bucket with calf manna over it, gradually decreasing the amount of calf manna over two weeks until you're offering only alfalfa. You do this to transition their gut from milk/calf manna to a grass diet that'll be the bulk of their calories for the rest of their life. You want their stomachs to get used to this before you put them on pasture.

Finally after 3 months, out on pasture they go. I like to feed them a little more calf manna for a month or so afterwards, but most of their calories is the grass from the pasture itself.

I usually band castrate them at 3 to 4 weeks of age using an elastrator & green bands.

I personally like the idea that I'm utilizing an animal that might otherwise be wasted, and I like the low purchase cost. it doesn't add too much time to my daily routine.

I usually grow the calves out 18 to 30 months; I'll eat one at 18 months, and one at 30 months, for instance. That's part of the reason that I pick up calves at this time of year. The timing is right for an early-winter slaughter, when the weather is cold enough for outside hanging of the sides of beef.

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