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In other posts, I’ve discussed the hereditary nature of grazing ability and the importance of selecting for animals that possess desirable foraging characteristics for use as breeding stock. We also promote raising bull calves on nurse cows as a way to increase docility and ease of handling. One question these things brings up is the age old chicken/egg argument of Nature vs. Nurture. Are these bulls truly born with desireable foraging ability or do they in effect “learn” to graze from their mothers? The answer is that it is a little bit of both.

Over 25 years ago we switched to a more natural calf-rearing program. In short, our on-farm calf raising specialists are the cows. The cow herd is divided into two groups during the grazing season. The “A-team” consists of the top-string milk cows. They go first in the rotation and have access to the best grass. I know there are critics of dual- and multi-group grazing. But for us the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. The next group that follows is the B-team. These are all the other animals: dry cows, heifers, steers, calves, and–you guessed it–nurse cows.

The nurse cows are usually cows that, for whatever reason ( high somatic cell count, shed temperament, production, teat injury) don’t belong in the milking string. Instead of these cows being an income-losing liability, they are perhaps our greatest income-generating asset. By using nurse cows to raise our calves, we gain from multiple advantages:

  • Less time and labor involved in preparing milk (or milk replacer), feeding calves, cleaning hutches, etc. For the most part, it’s pretty hands-off.
  • Less stress on calves. They much prefer being with their mothers or on a nurse cow to being cooped up in a hutch. They get fed when they’re hungry–not when it’s “time to feed calves.”
  • Increased condition on calves. I’ve never hand-raised or even seen a hand-raised calf that looks as good or displays as much vigor and intelligence at weaning time as a cow-raised calf.
  • Increased expression of grazing ability in calves.

That last reason is perhaps the most important when it comes to building a successful herd of grazing cattle. Although grazing ability is hereditary, it is also something that can be learned, or more appropriately, refined. Cattle, and especially calves, are extremely capable of adaptation and learning. The problem most dairies have with education is that they’re hiring the wrong teachers! When a calf is raised cowside, she learns at a very young age many things important to a grazing dairy, such as herd behavior, forage selection, terrain/paddock navigation, response to handling, and the list goes on. She learns these things from an experienced matron who’s been on the farm for years and has a Master’s Degree in the Fine Art of Grazing. None of those things can be taught by the hired hand who fills the buckets in the hutches. In fact, most of his time is spent cleaning out those buckets and hutches–time that could be spent doing something much more productive–and not to mention more enjoyable.

I was first turned on to this idea by Gearld Fry, who recommended leaving the top calves from my top cows on their mothers for no less than 8 months. What I found out, though, was that I wanted to milk my best cows, and that after about 8 weeks that calf was drinking all the milk that cow could produce–sometimes up to 5 gallons a day! My dad back at the home ranch had been using nurse cows for years–usually a 3-quartered cow that we didn’t want to mess with milking for one reason or another. He would put as many as 3 or 4 calves on a cow, and she would raise them, and then he’d cull the cow, thinking she had paid for herself. We decided take it another step further and keep those nurse cows around. After a couple of seasons they will pay for themselves many times over. Of course, she has to breed back in order to merit retention, but if you’ve got a solid AI program or a good bull, that shouldn’t be a problem, especially if you are breeding for fertility.

So, when it comes to raising calves on a grazing dairy, we need to revisit the idea of Nature Versus Nurture. On a grass-based system, it’s often advantageous to try to observe and learn from the lessons nature can teach us. What I’ve found out through observation is that there is no opposition between those two terms. Simply put, Nature is Nurture, and nurse cows are a natural way to raise healthier, stronger, smarter calves to be your future milk cows or herd bulls.