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Creating/Training/Buying a NURSE COW

Posted: Fri Feb 14, 2020 9:07 am
Hi all. I am Haley from Missouri. This is my first post to the page because I just have a general question.
My fiancé has been raising Angus cattle for a handful of years now and runs a pretty organized operation. He turns his bull in with his cows in late spring/early summer and gets calves in the early spring, and now he is working on starting up his fall calvers as well. Anyway- Something that I want to try is introducing a nurse cow to the herd. I am reading that maybe a Jersey would be better?? But not sure on that?
I can not seem to find any for sale at all. I have a few questions though...
Would it be easier to:
1- Buy a bottle heifer and raise her and at that point I could handle her from day one and potentially have a gentle cow to work with? Although I do not know how hard it is to train them to become a NURSE COW
2- Buy an already started cow who has successfully raised some calves???? They are more expensive and you also don't know what you get sometimes.. But at least I would know/think that she is a trained and willing nurse cow
My plan for all this is--- I figure that this cow could be bred with the rest of the herd in late spring and she would calve at the same time as the beef cattle at which point she would raise her own calf as well as any orphaned calf that may come. But (fingers crossed) we never have any orphan calves then I would need to go to buy a little dairy calf and then she would raise her calf along with the dairy calf.
My plan is that I could hopefully sell one with the other calves and butcher the other. Like I said this is a new idea to me. Does this sound like something that is possible/do-able??

Re: Creating/Training/Buying a NURSE COW

Posted: Sat Feb 15, 2020 11:50 am
by Lucky_P
Jersey is probably the quintessential 'nurse cow' around these parts.
Do-able, but IDK if it's worth the trouble if your main concern is the occasional 'orphan' or rejected calf.
IMO, the chance of bringing in a really undesirable disease - especially something like Johne's Disease - but also things like BVD, rota/coronavirus, Salmonella, etc. - increases exponentially every time you bring an animal(whether an adult cow or a 'bottle calf') in from another premise - especially from a dairy.
In my experience as a veterinarian and as a calf-raiser... the incidence of Johne's, Salmonella, 'hot' E.coli, rota/coronavirus is way higher on dairies than in beef herds.

Re: Creating/Training/Buying a NURSE COW

Posted: Sat Feb 15, 2020 2:19 pm
by bird dog
Lucky is right, there is risk. Saying that I had one for years that did what you are thinking about. She raised 7 calves in the last 4 years before she got to old and I sold her. I bought a 1st calf Jersey heifer to hopefully replace her.

Some are easy to work with, some are not. This cow was not to happy about it but I would lock her up in the cattle trailer with her calf and the orphan or twin and she would eventually give in if the calf was persistent enough. Usually took about 3 days.

Oh yeah, welcome Haley.

Re: Creating/Training/Buying a NURSE COW

Posted: Sun Feb 16, 2020 9:53 am
by cowgal604
I’ve tried both. I’ve raised up a jersey and I’ve bought one that was about to calf and was used to being milked etc. Honestly I gave up on both of those cows pretty early on. It was way too much work for me. Both cows took so much time to warm up to the new calf it exhausted me and I was sick of getting kicked. I’ve seen it work really well but I just can’t get it to go well. I did milk a jersey for a while and feed it back to my bottle calves but it’s way easier for me to feed replacer. I have debated getting 3-4 jerseys and a milking machine...I still debate that. I love jerseys.

I did have it work for one cow tho. Once I bought a cow calf pair and an orphan calf. I had someone pick them up for me and on the trailer ride over the orphan started nursing on the cow with the calf and she ended up feeding that orphan for 6 months! All it took was one trailer ride. That cow nursed every bottle calf I put in the field with her until she died! She was a Hereford and she was pretty wild. Not tame and from the mountains but she has exceptional mothering abilities. If I could get another cow like that I’d be into it but I have no patience for training a nurse cow.

Here is a pic of one of my jersey nurse cows feeding my angus orphan calf. Looks nice and sweet and easy but I almost broke my ankle this day haha


Re: Creating/Training/Buying a NURSE COW

Posted: Sun Feb 16, 2020 2:01 pm
by regolith
Taking on extra calves has a lot to do with hormones, more than disposition.
Lots of Jersey cows are very happy to raise all and any calves. It's a lot easier when she's just calved, to persuade her to foster. And having raised calves before is no guarantee she'll want to do it again.
Having a small pen or crate for the calves to feed in for the first few days will increase the success rate markedly... most cows will accept a calf they've already been feeding for several days. If you get one that has to be brought in to feed the calf for a week or more though, I'd rather cull the cow (or give her a calf that she likes - sometimes she just doesn't like that one) and bottle feed the calf.

Re: Creating/Training/Buying a NURSE COW

Posted: Mon Feb 17, 2020 3:09 pm
by Stocker Steve
Calves graft easier if they know what a nipple is for and can get around well. So buying the nurse cow after you have started calve(s) is the simplest, but as others said it can still be alot of work.

I tried grafting onto a calm beef cow first. Took a week of fancy rope work to convince her. Then I tried two Jersey crosses thinking they would be easy. One had Johne's and never left the mothering pen, the other mothered well with two calves but bred back way late. So we made money on the calves and lost money on both Jersey cows... Most folks don't mention that part. Cull Jerseys were as low as 20 cents this winter.

Re: Creating/Training/Buying a NURSE COW

Posted: Mon Feb 17, 2020 10:51 pm
by farmerjan
You say that you are from Mo. I am in Va and have been raising dairy and dairy cross calves for over 40 years. I try to to raise most on nurse cows but also do some on bottles. I presently have 5 dairy cows that I use to raise calves on. There are a few tricks. But let me address your idea of using the cow to raise a possible orphaned calf. If the calf is aggressive it will probably go on the cow if it is less than 10 days or 2 weeks old. But if it is older, and say the cow dies, often a calf will not want to go on a different mother. Again, some will become "stealers" off another cow in the herd. But there are some that just won't want another mother. Or if it is too different in age than the nurse cows' own calf, you cannot be assured of the cow allowing it to nurse.
It does help if the calf is bottle/nipple trained, or comes directly off a cow at a couple days old.
There is no guarantee that a home raised up calf to be a nurse cow, will be accepting. No matter how nice, they have to have a disposition so that the hormones kick in. I had a guernsey cow off a commercial dairy that had been milking there for 6 lactations, turn into one of the best nurse cows I ever had....but a raised up jersey sweetheart that I never got to take calves.
Just because a cow allowed calves one time is no guarantee they will take them again, although it is an indication that they might be more accepting.

If you are thinking of this just as a possible nurse cow to take orphan calves then it honestly is not worth it. I quit raising them because it just is not economical as it once was. I only do it now because I like my dairy cows and don't want to cull them, because there is no market for dairy steers, and it costs too much to buy black calves to put on them because when you sell them there is not enough return. A holstein bull calf is bringing in the $25 to $75 range whereas a black calf, and most are half dairy, cows bred to a black bull for crossbred calves, will bring $100 to $250. The thing is the crossbred black calves will show the dairy in them as they grow so that as feeders they are worth alot less than a straight bred beef calf. For example, say a beef calf is worth 1.50 lb at 500 lbs. A holstein steer is worth .70 at 500 lbs. A black dairy cross steer is worth 1.00 at 500 lbs. So if you spend $50 for the holstein then he brings you 350-50=300. A black cross calf costs $125 and brings 500 -125=375. A beef calf is worth 750. A nurse cow will eat as much or more because her system will require more to produce more milk. They do not keep weight on as easily as a beef cow. You would have to sell off at least 2 calves just to make what one beef calf will bring. So she has to raise at least 3 to break even on the cost of keeping her for the year.
I do it because I like my dairy cows. I used to raise 4-6 calves a year per cow, pulling some calves off and put a couple more on to utilize the production. But no longer. I try to get them to each take 3 and let them raise them up to 6-9 months weaning and figure I can pay for the cow's upkeep for the year. I feed grain in the first couple of months so the cow doesn't lose too much condition and gets bred back. So I have more in the cow than in our beef cows.
One of the reasons, that they are still here besides that I like my dairy cows, is that we run beef cattle also and often have one or two sets of twins and usually pull a twin off and then put it on the nurse cow. The beef cow does a better job if she only raises one most times, although we have a couple that will raise a total of 750 to 1,000 lbs total weight in the calves. Usually it is the cow prefers one calf over the other and this way we can be more sure she will do a good job with the one , and the other will get a chance. If my cows are not in the right stage, we will sell the calf. Not worth the cost of the milk replacer, and the time to get the calf to a weanable weight, then the added grain to keep that calf growing.

If you get a dairy cow, and want to use her as a nurse cow there are tricks to it that often give you better results. The first thing is that as soon as she calves, and her calf gets colostrum, take the calf away and pen it where she cannot feed it until you want her to. I bring the cows in to their calf, with any other calves I want her to take at the same time. I put her in a head catch/stanchion, and let the calves go on her, with her calf closest to her so she can smell it. I grain her when she is feeding the calves. Some will go directly on, some have to be taught what the udder is for. That is why a calf that is bottle - nipple trained is much easier to get started because they will often latch on as soon as it gets the smell or quick taste of the milk. A cow identifies it calf by the smell of the manure and the milk that goes through it. Most people just don't realize how important it is for the calf's manure to smell right to the cow. Yes they lick them and all, but the milk that they are producing causes that calf to smell right to her, as it is processed through the calf's system. After a couple of days, the cow often will quit kicking, and will tolerate the calves because she is getting fed also. Then I will try leaving the cow in with the calves for a few hours the a few days, and watch to see if when her own calf goes on, the other calves get the idea that they need to go suck at the same time. Once she doesn't fight them, I will let her out into a small pasture to see if they are nursing. If so, then you are good to go. But the cow still gets grained at least once a day, with the calves often coming in with her. This process will take up to 2-3 weeks to make sure they are well accepted and eating good and will stick with the cow out in the pastures.
This is not a quicky thing. Some will take them in 2-3 days, some take a couple weeks. Every cow is different, every lactation is different.

Because I have worked in the dairy industry for many years, I have access to dairy calves straight off the farm that have had a good start of colostrum. I can be pretty sure of the good health of a new calf. But since the costs of raising them has gone up and the return is the same or less than it used to be, I cannot see a profit without alot of man hours in it anymore. I milk my cows also for milk for the house, and I am breeding most all of them to beef and raise these jersy/angus calves for our own beef and for sale private because they won't bring enough at the sales to justify it. There is too much difference in the dairy cross calves from the pure beef calves, that they will not sell "along with" the calves off the beef cows. A good buyer can tell the difference in a crossbred calf, and they will not sell in the "group" even if they sell at the same age and time at weaning. So, the price will be alot lower. Again, the comparisons I made above. That is only very round figures, but it was to give you an example. This is long enough, I will be glad to answer any other questions about what/how I do it.

Re: Creating/Training/Buying a NURSE COW

Posted: Thu Feb 20, 2020 7:28 am
by Stocker Steve
Hi Jan. Why do you think nurse calves are not as economical as they once were?

Re: Creating/Training/Buying a NURSE COW

Posted: Wed Feb 26, 2020 1:07 pm
by farmerjan
I used to figure it cost me 350 to 400 a year to keep a cow. Today it is costing over 500 to 600 to keep a cow. With the returns on the calves staying somewhat close to what they used to, you just aren't making as much money. I used to pay 7.50 /100 weight for feed/grain. Now it is closer to 8-9.00 /50 lbs. Hay has stayed the same and we are finding it is barely paying our costs of making it.
If I had the time to put into still raising 5-9 calves per year off each cow, then I could make some money. But still, not like I used to. I was getting .50 to .65/lb for holstein feeder calves in the 80's. They aren't bringing much more than that most months now. 40 years later????!!!! It takes 3 / 500 lb holsteins to pay the cow costs. I used to figure, 2 calves to pay cow costs, then 1 to keep and 1 for profit. (Or 2 to sell). Now it is 3 to pay costs, at least, and 1 for "profit" so nothing left. The 4th calf that often was a heifer to keep, or an extra to sell, so some money in the bank so to say. If it was a heifer that I kept, then I was increasing my herd, so adding to my bottom line so to speak.
Rents on land keep going up, so that goes against the "cost to keep the cow". All the little things. The rules like the calves of dairy background, have to be tagged. At 1.00-2.00 per tag if you don't get them from the vet, and the vets are no longer giving them out here. Sale barn costs have gone up. All the little nickel and dime stuff that really is just adding up. You can't make it pay like it used to.

Plus there are just too many outside influences. This opening up for the importation of South American beef, is going to hurt all the beef industry. There are fewer and fewer places that will take and feed out holsteins. They make great beef, and often grade up with the best. But, they eat more. And with the plants getting bought out and consolidating, there aren't the places to go with the dairy beef. There just aren't the outlets, so there aren't as many buyers competing for the feeders, so the prices are lower. With the price of feeder black calves here running from 1.20 to 1.60 in the 5 weight range, it is hard enough to pay costs. The buyers aren't going to pay much for the holsteins if they don't have anywhere to "go with them". I know several buyers that would pick up holsteins, even if they were primarily beef feeder buyers, because they had somewhere to send them. Now not so much. They get bought by the buyers that buy alot of the scrub stuff. So they just don't pay much because there is no competition at the sale yards.

Maybe I am just running out of energy to make next to nothing on my time and effort. Dairy cows do require a little more to properly take care of them. I love my dairy cows. But, I am tired of working for nothing for my time. At least the beef cows do not require as much effort to get a calf off them. But even so, we are seriously looking at what we are doing, and trying to decide the direction to go in. We are working too hard for too little return anymore. At least here in this area, the inputs are getting to be more than the return. I think that maybe it does work out in the areas that Dave is in. I would be better off scaling back and only raising enough to keep my freezer full, selling a few to pay out of pocket costs, and the be nice with killing myself with the hours we put in. I loved farming, but now it is getting to be a job that I no longer love for the sheer enjoyment of it. And the bigger you get, the more that you need, to keep it going. Doing it more as a hobby would be more satisfying than it has been in the last few years of working this hard and going in the hole. Didn't used to take some outside income to keep it afloat. But it does now in this area.

A small farmer could make a modest living on a 50 cow dairy. Have a healthy lifestyle and provide for a family. They never went hungry and there was a little money for other things. They could sell 5 springing heifers off the farm a year that were surplus to them and that was like a nest egg each year; to be used to purchase a new piece of equipment or something. Now the ones milking 150 are struggling. Dairy heifers are bringing less than a bred beef heifer, less than it costs to get them to the "springing stage". A small "hobby" beef farmer could make a bit off a 20-25 cow herd on his back 40 acres. Now he cannot. Ask any on here that have 20-40 cows. They are maybe paying for their expenses. They have either inherited their land, or bought it with money from an outside job. Most are still doing it because they like it. We like our cows. But we are taking from our "outside job" to keep us farming. That is not good economics.

Re: Creating/Training/Buying a NURSE COW

Posted: Thu Feb 27, 2020 4:32 am
by Stocker Steve
The classic farming approach to shrinking margins is to increase volume, but that is difficult with a high labor enterprise like nurse cows.

I did ask a feedlot rep about reduced demand for dairy steers. He said one previous packer quit buying them, and another packer only bought them seasonally. So I asked why aren't they buying them. He said dairy steers were harder to process. I think the root issue is the remaining kill plants can contract to get enough beef steers.

Seems like we are back to that higher volume thing.

An interesting trend that came up was putting male beef embryos into dairy cows and eliminating dairy x beef breeding. They reported that they have reduced the cost of this to about $30. Sounds really cheap. So more beef steers?