Back in the day, as they say, newborn calves were put into a barn and basically left to fend for themselves during the weaning process.
That’s no longer the case, not since 1981 when a Wisconsin company developed something providing about all the creature-comforts any calf could desire.
Sophisticated hutches may not represent a Ritz-Carlton Hotel for calves, but they do protect them from rain as well as excessive hot and cold temperatures.
They also have attachments for feed and water along with enough room to walk around inside until they get too big and are gently "evicted" and transferred quite literally to greener pastures.
Calf-Tel, as the hutches are called by the company that created them, is a good name because the "Tel" could easily be translated into motel or hotel.
Others agricultural manufacturers have come up with their own designs in recent years, but the bottom line is the same and dairy farmers appreciate what American ingenuity has provided for them.
"They were a great step up from the way we used to do it," said Wayne Bearden, the new superintendent of the E.V. Smith Research Center located at Auburn University’s Agricultural Experimental Station in Macon County. "These hutches are a big improvement."
Bearden and Calvin McCarthy, who had been superintendent at the station for the past 10 years before his retirement on Aug. 1, have spent their lives in the dairy cattle business.
They can relate to the difficulties of making sure calves were properly cared for following their birth. Much needs to be done to ensure their steady growth and modern hutches have been playing a key role for the past 30 years.
"What we have now is relatively new," said McCarthy, an Ohio native who is happy to call Alabama home. "Auburn and Mississippi State developed hutches back in the 50s, but they weren’t much more than 4x4 dog-style pens."
What the experiment station has now are dozens of plastic hutches capable of taking care of a calf from birth until they reach a certain weight and then are moved to the dairy herd.
"One of the biggest advantages of having these hutches is good disease control," McCarthy said. "When I started out, calves would be put into a spare space in a barn, but disease could become rampant and wipe out a whole herd or stunt the growth of the calves in the barn."
When that happened, he said, it meant moving the calves out of the barn, treating them with disinfectants "and starting all over again."
"There’s nothing better for control of disease than fresh air and sunshine," McCarthy explained. "We want the calves outside and having these hutches provides good care of them."
McCarthy, who began milking dairy cows at the age of five at the family farm in central Ohio, said little thought was given back then to special treatment for calves. At that time, they were just put into a barn.
"I never dreamed there would be anything like a hutch," he said. "When we started using them, they were made of wood and were quite heavy. They came apart easy and were harder to sanitize."
Today’s hutch versions are made of plastic, fiberglass or some other material making them easy to move around and clean.
As June pushed toward July, all but two calves were left at the experiment station. They were late arrivals, but that didn’t matter because they got the same good treatment as their four-legged predecessors.
One was a brown Jersey, the other a black and white Holstein. They spent most of their first days eating, drinking and adding weight to their rapidly developing bodies.
McCarthy and Bearden became surrogate mothers for the calves just after they are born — using colostrum collected from milk cows and then personally feeding it to them.
Colostrum maintains nature’s balance of immunological and body regulating biologically active proteins. That’s a big description for liquid designed to enhance a calf’s natural immune system.
Calves are placed into a hutch the day they are born. A training period includes initial feeding by hand before bottles are placed into a metal holder attracting the calf as soon as it is aware of its location.
"They are pretty smart," said Bearden during an interview with AFC Cooperative Farming News. "We fill buckets with feed and water and they eat twice a day. The metal holder has a place for the bottle’s nipple to be exposed for them to get the milk they need for growth."
As soon as the calves start to consume a pound to a pound and a half a day, they are given straight milk. Later, they are allowed to nibble on grass outside the hutch.
"We don’t offer them hay at that stage," said Bearden, who lives near the experiment station and is on call 24 hours a day. "Once they go into the pasture we give them concentrated feed twice a day."
When the calves reach 10 months, they are taken to a pasture across Interstate 85 and, at 12 to 15 months, they are bred.
"We used to breed at 15 to 18 months, but calves are growing so much quicker these days," said Bearden. "Specialized handling and genetics have a lot to do with it and ramping them up to milk herd size so fast."
McCarthy said an average size hutch will cost up to $300 and are so well-built they can last for decades.
"Milk from contented cows" was a popular commercial years ago and the two men said that hasn’t changed a bit when it comes to producing what amounts to "white gold."
McCarthy said a "contented, happy animal" tends to be more relaxed and, for that reason, understandably produces more milk.
"It’s really nothing more than a common sense point of view — doing all we can to make the cows comfortable and to provide more milk," said McCarthy. "It’s a good way to remain profitable."
Calves living in hutches are restricted in their movement, but that’s by design, said McCarthy, who remembers criticism years ago by some individuals and animal rights groups over the practice of tethering the animals.
"It’s similar to training a puppy," he said. "If you never tie it up or control its movement, just try to put a rope on it and then make it listen to you. The younger you start with a calf, the better things will turn out."
The two "stragglers," as McCarthy described the late arriving calves, got to know each other outside their hutches by extending their chains.
At one point, they touched noses as a way for the bigger Holstein and the smaller Jersey to meet and exchange glances. It might have appeared cute, but McCarthy said that’s a "no-no" because nose touching can wind up spreading disease.
Although it’s a facility that does experiments with cattle, it’s also a commercial-like, self-sustaining venture, said McCarthy, who knows continuation requires some business acumen.
"These calves will be our milk cows two years down the road," he said. "We don’t buy any animals, so we need to have enough replacements to continue our operation... We’ve got to keep the herd turning over."
Bearden and McCarthy have formed quite a team at the experiment station and they’ll be staying in touch now McCarthy has retired.
Nearly two decades older than his friend, they share the same love of dairy farming, something that has been a major part of their lives.
"Dairy farmers have a seven-day-a-week job," McCarthy said. "They almost have to be on their death bed to take a day off."
As far as McCarthy is concerned, "It’s not the money that’s involved, it’s the pride of doing a good job and the satisfaction of breeding an animal better than their ancestors."
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.