The bellowing in the holding pen stopped as I walked across the barnyard. Eleven calves watched me open the gate to come in and feed them in the pen — a space I think of as the nursery. A day earlier, I had separated these calves from their moms. Why do we keep the mothers and babies separate? It’s all about training the calves.
It’s far easier to train cattle when they are babies. These calves live together in the nursery, where I spend quality time with them twice daily.
The good news is that the mother cows have already taught them a lot. They’ve learned about personal space, that hay and grass are for eating, and that love starts with licking. (Brushing is the human substitute.) But the mothers can’t teach them about human interaction. That’s my job.
Twice a day, each calf is outfitted with a halter and an attached rope. We tie the calves to rings and gates in the nursery, then take their temperature, check their weight, and give them meds if necessary. During weaning, calves change from a mostly milk diet to a diet of hay and grain. This change can cause scours, a bovine form of diarrhea, and can be deadly for calves. Kao-Pectin (a bovine form of Pepto Bismol) helps, but I also administer a homeopathic remedy called Agri-Tonic, widely used by the Amish. Agri-Tonic, a combination of molasses, vinegar, and trace minerals, is an effective probiotic that tastes awful to humans. I tasted it. The cows don’t like it either, but it’s good for them, so I follow each dosage with tasty electrolytes.
Calves Have Personalities
All this human interaction, including halter training, helps a calf grow into a safe and friendly adult bovine. Besides, working with the babies is fun.
And they are not all the same. Molly will readily sniff my hair when I lean down. That’s something that a curious calf will do when she feels safe. It’s a sign of acceptance. However, Molly’s sister Scooter is warier. After working with her for three days, she tried to escape when I took hold of her rope. Friendly hair sniffing is not on her agenda.
Successful halter training takes patience and much walking among the babies to convince them I’m not to be feared. These calves have three weeks to change from leaping, bawling bundles of energy to head-sniffing, friendly calves that look forward to their daily grain ration. They will be ready for summer camp on July 10, when young calf trainers at our summer Farm Day Camp take over. During the camp, youngsters are assigned a calf to train, which they will show off in a competition on the last day. I wonder who will learn more –- the calves or the kids?
Every year the magic of kids and calves amazes me. Happiness is when a 12-year-old boy would rather snuggle with his calf than run through the sprinklers on a hot day or send text messages.
If you know of any animal-loving youngsters (ages 8-14), check out the camp. We still have spots, and scholarships are available. Application is easy and can be found here.