Today we will see just under 9 full hours of daylight – truly the darkest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere – but at 6:03 pm this evening, the sun will begin its progression north again bringing increasing daylight. Although temperatures lag behind the sun by about a month, which accounts for January being the coldest month. In these darkest hours, we are hopeful for the light.
I’ve always loved celebrating Christmas around the Winter Solstice for this very reason. To me, the actual birth date of Christ is rather insignificant but the symbolism of the light piercing the darkness is rich, powerful, and much more important than a particular calendar date – especially now that I can fully appreciate how humbling it would be to not only give birth in a barn, but to be born into one. Dark, dirty and dank, not to mention smelly, a child would certainly bring warmth, light and joy to such a place.
Last weekend we had our own “child” born into our barn – our beautiful Jersey heifer named Buttercup. She is long-awaited around here since her mom, Buttercream, was slightly overdue. But, a quick and uncomplicated labor made up for the wait! She proved to add to our workload right away as she refused to nurse from her mom or take a bottle for 3 full days after birth.
In nature, she would have died since calves need about 3 feedings of colostrum within the first 24 hours of life. After that, their ability to absorb the nutrients in the colostrum is diminished, leaving the calf vulnerable and likely to die quickly. Colostrum has about 5 times the concentration of key nutrients and antibodies as whole milk and is necessary to populate the flora of the calf’s gut, providing the entirety of her immune system for the first 3 months of life.
Luckily, Dan has learned to stomach tube calves from his work as a herdsman at a large dairy farm, so we had to stomach tube her colostrum every 12 hours until she decided that taking a bottle was a much more enjoyable and easier way to fill her belly. At just over a week old, she’s a strong, mobile and happy calf!
It takes about 4-5 days for a cow’s milk to fully transition from colostrum to whole milk so on Friday we took milk from all 3 of our lactating cows into the lab for testing. Buttercream’s milk will not be available for customers until we receive those results, likely in the next day or two. In the meantime, we’ve been feeding her milk to Buttercup, treating our pigs to an early Christmas gift, and freezing a lot for later use for the calf. Many working moms pump and freeze their milk – well, we have a large chest freezer filling with gallons of milk from this hard working mom!
We’ve had a few questions about why we separate the cow and calf and it’s a great question! There’s a lot of ways to handle the cow/calf situation in dairy. With beef cows, calves are always kept with their moms until weaning age (anywhere between 6 and 8 months) because you’re not looking to take some of the mom’s milk. In dairy, however, the goal is to take the cow’s excess milk.
One solution is to milk mama cow in the morning, then let the calf have access to her for 12 hours during the day, then separate them at night. Another solution would be to keep them together always or separate them always. We opted to keep mom and baby together for the first few days so Buttercup could nurse colostrum directly from her mom. She wasn’t very successful at this and we separated them when she started taking a bottle. I was actually surprised by how quickly Buttercream adjusted to life without her calf and Buttercup has been happy to nurse her milk from a bottle and has become very quickly attached to us!
There’s a few reasons why we choose to keep them separated until weaning age. One is that a calf will nurse unevenly from the teats, usually preferring one or two. This causes her milk to come in unevenly, allowing some teats to dry off faster, not produce as much milk, and the calf initiates more “wear and tear,” breaking down the udder faster. Ultimately, this shortens the productive lifespan of the cow.
The second reason we don’t leave the calf on the mom is because we deal in raw milk where exposure to pathogens and sanitation are incredible important. We cannot control where the calf’s mouth has been and cannot sanitize the teat before she suckles so we lose a lot of control over the introduction of pathogens in the udder region. This makes sanitation much more difficult and the risk of infections increases for the cow, compromising the overall health of the cow when she’s sharing her teats between a machine and baby.
On an unrelated note, we have a new website! We’ve changed a few things up, mostly cleaning up things behind the scenes, but we’ve added a Frequently Asked Questions page and we encourage to send us your questions to help us develop this. I’m hoping it will be a great tool and resource for potential, new and current customers. We are also beginning this blog series: the Farm Week in Review, which will be published every Sunday. It’s our chance to bring into what’s happening on the farm each week – it will include a variety of topics from news and updates, to recent victories and struggles, to photo stories of our life on the farm. We encourage you to subscribe to our newsletter (check out the box to the right) to receive it in your inbox each week, or look for it on social media every Sunday. If you have previously subscribed to our old blog, please resubscribe since we lost subscriptions in the transition. We hope it’s 15 minutes each week you can curl up with a cup of coffee to learn and laugh with us.
A big thank you to our friends at Come Alive Creative in helping & supporting us through transitioning the new site. They have been incredibly fun to work with and great people to brainstorm with – be sure to check out their website and Come Alive Creator podcast!
Merry Christmas from the entire Two Sparrows Farm Family!