It’s weaning time on the farm, that special time of year when we are kept up all night by the mooing of the cows calling to their calves. The eight Highlander calves we’re weaning have been eating grass and hay for months and while they like to nurse they don’t have to. We try to plan all the births in the spring so that we can wean the babies six months later, in the fall.
Our cattle are raised for beef but dairy operations work differently. Dairy calves are born all year and are weaned shortly after birth. The main purpose of a dairy cow is to produce milk. By weaning the calf, milk can be collected from the cow. Dairy cows are typically milked twice a day, twelve hours apart. Some backyard farms with one or two cows let the calf nurse once a day then the farmer milks the cow the other time. This allows the farmer to “take a break” from twice a day milking.
We don’t milk our cows, except in an emergency, but we do wean them at six months for a couple of reasons. Most of the moms are pregnant so instead of nursing, energy can go into nourishing the fetus. We also keep the calves together so they get their fair share of food. In a herd of large cows, the smallest critters are often kept from the best food by the bigger more aggressive cattle so it’s important to keep them separate.
Another reason is “socialization.” We’ve watched the calves grow and frolic all summer but now it’s time to handle them to get them used to people. Each calf is haltered and tied securely to a solid object. Never having been restrained before, most resist. They will pull back, flip in the air, jump straight up with all four feet off the ground, flop on the ground, run back and forth and kick. It’s best they take out their frustrations on a post and not me. Each calf can weigh 150 to 300 pounds and in mid-flight, an airborne calf can be dangerous.
After a few hours of being tied most calves settle down. Cattle are pretty lazy and once they realize they are not going to be hurt they start to explore. I walk between the calves petting them and calling them by name at feeding time. Some will come over and sniff and lick me. Now is the time I learn about each personality. Every calf has a name tag so I can remember which calves lick and which ones kick. Based on their personalities this is also when the calves get their jobs. Some will grow up to be mothers, some to be working steers or ambassadors and some will be in the beef program.
Right now, I’m not thinking of their future jobs but I am having fun with the “weaners” as we call them. Soon we’ll be leading them all over the farm. Stop by if you want to get to know these cuties and join in the fun. There is nothing so joyous as a pen of weaned Highlanders looking for attention.