a calf pen…

…in Southern Norway…

calves need space…

Calves need space in order to grow up, shape up, stay healthy and learn to interact with other calves. After a few weeks in the limited-size single-calf boxes indoors, we move our calves out to the relative spacious triangular shaped calf pen we have provided in the slopes less tham 50 meters from the barn.

The calf pen is a small world of its own, where the calves can grow up protected from but in contact with the larger animals on the farm. One of the water-posts is crossing the fence, so cows and calves use to meet there quite often for a drink and a chat.

A small enclosure at one end of the pen has concrete slab covered ground that is easy to keep clean and dry. This enclosure is facilitated with milk-feeding racks, small feed-boxes for concentrates and minerals, an all-weather shelter with straw-bedding, and whatever else around half a dozen calves at a time are in need of.

With this small enclosure as base the small creatures can graze and run around, and learn to adjust to the weather, the environment, each others, the cows that pass by to and from the barn and between pastures, and us humans. We have close contact with the calves while feeding them twice a day in the small enclosure, and we observe them from the house and farm-yard to make sure they're doing alright. I'm actually observing them from my home-office window as I write this.

calves need attention…

Keeping an eye on the individual calf is important, as a calf can easily fall behind, and eventually die, for a number of reasons. Tough competition between different-sized calves can prevent an already weak animal from getting the food it needs, or a calf can simply become sich and need treatment and/or an adjusted diet and extra care.

Since calves are born throughout the year, the youngest can be given a hard time by the older ones once they get together in the pen. The fact that they are so few doesn't help here, as small and weak animals can't disappear amongst others and stay out of trouble that way.

Animals can be pretty cruel in their fight for dominance, and submission from the youngest ones may not always be enough to prevent really bad situations. Usually we solve such problems by removing the oldest and most dominant calves from the pen, but sometimes we have to take out the one exposed to most stress in order to give it a fair chance.

Cattle are spirit-dependent animals, so as long as a calf feel that we pay attention to it and that it is taken well care of, it'll stay healthier and function better. Spending time with and simply talking to a weakened calf can save its life, as an animal that feels neglected and lonely can simply give up and lay down and die.

feeding calves in the pen…

Having all calves in one pen means they all have access to the same food. Problem is: calves of different age can't make proper use of the same food, so we have to serve a diverse menu.

Calves start their life by relying on cow-milk as primary energy-source, with the ability to also digest very, very, small amounts of solid food – natural/concerved grass and concentrates. As they grow, their entire digestive system physically changes to the point where they can get all the energy they need from solid food.

When we're certain the uptake of solid food has reached a satisfactory level and the calves starts to play with the milk feeders instead of drinking the milk, we slowly start to lower the amount of milk in their diet. This is an “observe and adjust” phase, as on one hand we want the calves to get enough food but on the other hand we don't want to throw away good milk.

This transition from relying on milk to relying on solid food as energy-source, can only take place if all relevant food-sources are available so each individual animal can adjust its own transition over several weeks and months. Attempting a forced transition will most likely kill the calf, and calves of all ages need relative stable diets with slow changes in order to avoid diarrhea and other stomach-problems. The more the calves themselves are in control, the better the result in most cases.

extended “milk-feeding”:

We solve this by extending the milk-feeding period so it lasts the entire time calves stay in the pen. This means they all follow the same routines at feeding-time and the younger calves can learn from the older ones.

However, it is only calves below 3-4 months of age that need full-energy milk solutions and will actually consume large amounts of it, so the older calves get water with a taste of milk and molasses. We then have to sort the calves by age and need at feeding-time twice a day, and make sure the small calves are not pushed avay by the older/stronger ones.

A 4 months old calf may not want to drink much full-energy milk when it has already had its fill on grass, straw and concentrates, but if allowed it may play around and prevent the smaller calves from getting access to the milk. This is where the taste of molasses comes in, as all calves (and cows) like that taste and once the older calves get started they will suck on the rubber tits that deliver that taste as if their lives depended on it.

As a result the older calves will leave the younger ones to drink their regular milk in peace. It's a trick, and it works really well – milk for the young ones and juice for the more grown-up. Color coded containers with different-worn rubber tits helps in making sure each calf gets the right drink for its age and needs.

We must have really close contact with the calves during milk-feeding, and pay attention until we're sure every single one is well fed and happy. Since calves always want to suck for a prolonged period once they've started, we can check their health and spirit by letting them suck on our hands once they've finished their meal. Amount of saliva, temperature in mouth and on nose, and the energy they put into sucking, tell us most of what we need to know about each calf's condition.

That the calves seek such close contact with us humans for all their needs and for comfort, is also vital at all stages in their lives – and ours.
As long as these small but quite heavy, eager and strong creatures don't step too hard on my feet or break my rib-bones, I'm happy with this degree of closeness.

The extended milk-feeding period also has another purpose, as it assures our calves get enough fluid even when all water-posts are frozen solid in the midst of winter. Calves certainly don't mind being served 12 liters of mostly water twice a day when the alternative is to eat snow – which they do anyway.

Another advantage is that we can add mineral and vitamin solutions to the water, either as a cure for a condition, or (in much smaller amounts) to prevent future problems.
Note that we here in Norway don't medicate our animals by adding antibiotics or such to their food. Such a practice would be illegal, and it would also be pointless since properly supported cattle don't need it anyway.

diverse and complete diet:

All living beings need access to a wide variety of minerals and vitamins, often in very small amounts but regularly, in order to stay healthy and make full use of existing food resources. As farm animals do have to live in a fenced-off area and can't walk freely around in search of all the ingredients for a perfect diet, it becomes our responsibility to provide what's missing in the area we confine them to and thereby balance the diet for each type and race of animals.

Licking-stones containing salt and minerals are always available in the calf pen. Apart from that the calves can serve themselves on those mineral-sources, the speed with which the licking-stones are worn down is a good indicator for whether the calves need extra mineral-supplements or not.

Daily portions of silage, hay and straw are of course part of the menu, and our calves are served some such fiber-rich and nourishing food all year round – even when there's plenty of grass. The idea is again that the calves can make choices and eat the food they need, instead of being limited to what we humans may think they need.

We can teach calves to eat many types of food as they grow up, as cattle are ruminants and can digest and extract energy from almost anything. What's important is that we do not limit or restrict their diet to deficient food for whatever reason, as that may lead to under-nourished and/or anemic animals.

Dietary restrictions in order to produce meat of a certain coloration or whatever, is nonsense, and such a practice is forbidden in Norway.
Humans anywhere in the world who deliberately produce or want meat from sick animals on their dinner tables, are sick. Calf Cruelty is Not Necessary.

dietary surprises:

Uninformed humans are often surprised to see what cattle of all ages want on their menu. For instance: that calves and cows lick dry dirt isn't because there's not enough food around, but because the animals instinctively and through trial and error feel/know that they need to take in certain minerals, spores and germs in order to have a complete diet, activate their immune systems and stay healthy.

That cattle may prefer weed, tree-bark and -leaves over the “best” grass at certain times, is also quite normal. Our cows have access to the wood and brush land with plenty of such alternative food, and there's some in the calf pen too. We even cut branches of the most sought-after tree-types which we bring to the calf pen, so the calves get access to the kind of food the cows add to their diet.

The individual animal can be extremely selective in its search for what it needs, and won't easily give up until it has found it and felt the effect. Young calves probably know more about preventing diseases through natural immunization than most humans will learn through their entire lives.

What's important is that we humans don't upset the delicate natural balance our animals make use of, thinking that we know so much better. We rarely ever do and probably never will.

growing up in and out of the pen…

Calves are only calves for so long – to around one year of age. In this growing-up period the ones we want to keep have to learn nearly all they need to know in order to fit into regular farm-routines.

We want animals that fit well into our dairy-farm profile from the start, in which all year round free-ranging is an important part. Since the calves grow up with quite a degree of freedom in the pen, they are of course quite well prepared to extend the range when it's time to leave it. Weather and seasonal conditions are pretty much the same inside and outside the calf pen, and only a few routines around milking-time are different.

Female calves stay in the pen until they are old and smart enough to join the cows – usually at the age of around 9-10 months. The exact timing depends on many variables, as the weather and time of year, the number and types of stalls available indoors at any one time, each calf's size and readyness, etc. Smooth transition is the goal here.

The young bulls stay in the pen until they have grown to a reasonable size (around 100kg), at around 4 to 8 months of age depending on race. They're then either sold to other farms that raise them for meat, or they end up directly in the slaughter-house. Where they end up depends on race and market, as no-one wants to raise Jersey bulls while young NRF bulls are sought after. They got the race vs. meat-quality and cost of raising them completely backwards, but there's nothing we can do about that other than to say so.

open since 1999…

The calf pen has been in use since 1999, and we have raised a few dozen calves there since then. Before that nearly all calves was sold at a very young age right out of the barn, and two-year old heifers/cows was bought in whenever a new cow was needed on the farm.

Raising our own farm-animals from day one all the way through to the day they leave the farm for good, has its positive and negative sides. On the positive side is that we get well-adjusted, well-behaving, animals that know how things are supposed to work around here. On the negative side is that we get attached to the animals, and hate to see them go.

There has always been contradictions in animal husbandry, and rather than trying to avoid or ignore these contradictions we deal with them as they arise. In the mean time we got some precious beings to take care of.

sincerely  georg; sign

Hageland 15.jun.2008
last rev: 08.aug.2008

a calf pen…

…we get attached to the animals, and hate to see them go.
— Georg

glimpses from the calf pen over the years