By Aly McClure, CommonGround Kansas volunteer farmer
Originally from Ohio, Aly moved to western Kansas where she met her now husband, TJ. Together, they raise 11,000 dairy heifers and try to keep up with their toddler and dogs.
My oldest child recently started school. His first years have taught us a lot. Just like any parent, I want my son to get off to the best start possible. The same goes with our calves.
The first two years of a dairy heifer’s life can start her off for a healthy and productive future. That’s what my husband and I do for 11,000 calves. Along with our four business partners, we started Circle Heifer Development in 2009. In many ways, we’re like a pre-school. Heifers come here at about 6 months old and stay for two years. Then, we send them to dairies in Michigan or Ohio. Many of these dairies have been milking cows for generations. It’s a hand-off from one farm family to another.
Let me tell you a little bit about how it works, and how it’s not that different from raising kids.
Arriving at ‘school’
Dairy farmers can raise their own calves on their farm, or they can send them to a heifer development facility like ours. It’s similar to the choice between home school and private school. Farmers can raise their own heifers, but it takes a significant amount of time and resources they may not have available. Like young children, young calves require a lot of time and attention.
We typically raise Holstein cattle, which is a breed meant to produce a lot of milk. Holsteins are also well-suited to the hotter, drier climate in our part of Kansas.
Our No. 1 job is to keep the calves safe and healthy. We watch each animal closely to make sure they are comfortable. This also helps us spot illness right away. Calves are only treated with antibiotics if they are sick, but quick action helps keep problems manageable.
Any illness during this important time can result in decreases in milk production later in life, or worse, animals that are chronically ill. Our veterinarian visits once a week to check the health of pregnant heifers and oversee the health program for the entire herd. Rain or shine, he’s there every week until the heifer is ready to leave our farm.
To inspect the animals, we slowly and calmly walk through each pen. Not in a truck or a 4-wheeler. Not even on horseback. We walk alongside the cattle. These animals are going to be around people their entire life. It’s important they aren’t frightened of us.
We also have a nutritionist that visits our farm once a week to ensure our feed is of good quality and balanced according to the needs of the animal. For example, a young calf needs a different meal than a pregnant heifer.
Our business partners grow much of the feed we give our heifers. We typically feed triticale silage. Triticale is a crop similar to corn, but it uses less water and provides the right nutrition for the types of animals we raise. We also use wet distillers grains, which is corn that is cooked down as a byproduct of a nearby ethanol plant.
Making the love connection
At our ranch, we also supervise breeding when the animal is old enough. Heifers will leave our farm between 7 and 8 months pregnant. The length of a cow’s gestation is similar to a human’s — about 9 months.
Almost all the heifers we care for are bred with artificial insemination (AI). The animals are matched to a bull with specific traits like a nice temperament. One of the most important is calving ease. We want to make sure heifers have an easy labor and delivery.
From the very beginning, we work closely with our customers to make sure they have a healthy, happy cow. While we don’t milk the cows or deliver the milk to your door, we are a part of a chain of people working hard — every day, in any kind of weather — to ensure we all have safe and affordable food.
It’s milk that I’m proud will be on my son’s lunch table both at school and at home.