We decided to raise the calves on the cows this year. The calves did wonderfully. We only had to treat two of them for any respiratory issues, and even then, it was a one time thing. The cows...well, the cows were stressed. "Where is my baby?" "You come back here!" "Don't go running off!" I kid you not. Example below. This was EVERY. DAY. when taking the mamas and babies from the pasture to the parlor. EVERY.DAY. TWICE.A.DAY.
The calves were fat and happy. We had 50 babies in with 116 cows. When we finally weaned the calves the herd average came up 15 lbs/cow. We have WELL FED babies--fat babies, babies that were only 6 to 8 inches shorter then their mothers when they were 4 months old (save a few that are just genetically small - certainly not for lack of food!).
The cows had to get oxytocin. They were determined to save all of their milk for their babies. Some adopted calves that weren't their's (because we didn't leave the bull calves in) and they held their milk for their well-fed, adopted babies. Somatic cell count was an issue with over half of the herd holding their milk even WITH oxytocin shots. Some of the more determined mamas could hold their milk through one milking despite the shot, but not the second milking. We had a lot more mastitis cases.
Heats were harder to detect. That was something that we had not anticipated. We noticed that estrus expression was not where we liked to see it the month before breeding, but we didn't realize the calves were contributing to this. We started reading and asking questions. Most beef herds don't have an issue with this, because the instinct to repress estrus expression has been mostly bred out through the years, but this is not the case with dairy cows, as most of the time the calves are removed at birth. We asked some of the breeding technicians, the vets, and we researched. Some of the vets said that the two weren't related, but the breeding technicians said, "Oh yeah, we know of big beef herds out west that pull the calves out about two or three weeks before breeding season. They leave them out for a few days, and then put them back. It is a long enough period of separation to flip the mama's system from being completely geared towards feeding her calf to reproduction."
The cows seemed to have more trouble maintaining body condition. Even into August I looked at the cows and felt like I could see a lot more definition in the bone structure then what I like to see at that time. I understand it right after calving, and when it is still cold. The cows also weren't completely focused on eating. They would go out to the pasture and follow their calves around. Then they would eat, follow their calves some more, eat, give their babies a bath, eat, and then begin to bawl, because at this point in time the babies would go under the single strand fence and lay down just out of their mothers' reach. Mamas were NOT happy and would proceed to bawl at their calm, peaceful, sleeping, and undisturbed children until the calves had finished with their nap and came back.
Calf chores were SO much easier (at least once the weather got nicer). The Mr. and I would look at each other in the house in the evening and say, "You know, right now we would just be getting back to the barn from feeding calves, and we would still have to clean up the equipment." We didn't have to buy replacement nipples or cleaning supplies for the feeders, drugs to treat a bunch of babies, or replacement parts for our makeshift calf shelters. Although tagging and dehorning the calves became much harder to do, and much more stressful both for us and them. We had to catch them a few at a time and halter them to do anything to them. This wasn't too hard as we have a barn that they liked to go in during milking so we could trap them, but it made all of our interactions with the calves negative associations. We weren't feeding them, most of them didn't let us get close enough to pet them, so the only time we handled them was to do something unpleasant. I wasn't thrilled about that. I like my calves to be my babies.
We didn't have to train the babies to the fence. They learned it was hot. They would still try to slide under a high wire, but once we added a second strand (after they decided to start doing laps around the barn at milking time and coming uncomfortably close to the road) they never went through it. They saw the fence as a barrier, and respected it.
We weaned them on June 29th by first putting nose rings on them. We left them with their mothers for five days. This was the best we could do to get them ready for the big transition. Then, on July 4th (Independence Day - how appropriate) we put them in their own pasture. Two calves took the separation harder than the rest. One of them had learned how to drink in spite of the nose ring (why we didn't leave them in with their mothers longer), and the second had lost her nose ring, and was drinking away, so it was a much more sudden change for them. The youngest calf was three months old, and we had already introduced them to grain several weeks prior.
About two weeks after we weaned them, we noticed that the cows and calves were both calmer. The cows started to express heats better (until it got hot), and it was much quicker getting the cows to the parlor. The Mr. started to wean the cows off of oxytocin, and by the middle of August no one needed any shots...sigh.
Here is a video of the cows about six weeks after we weaned the calves.
Ah the peace and quiet.
Would we do it again? Probably not. The calves were drinking approximately 40 lbs a day by the time we weaned them, and that was quite a dent in the paycheck--one that we can't expense out either. The biggest reason was the breeding issues. We are seasonal and can't afford to adopt a program that will have a negative impact on our management, not to mention our finances. They were fun to watch though.
Parting tip. If you would like to do this with your herd, I would not advise putting them anywhere close to the house at night. If a baby goes where her mama can't get to her YOU WILL hear her lament and her angst ALL.NIGHT.LONG. (grin - though I was not grinning at the time).