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Calf Rearing with the Madre Method

By Phyllis & Paul Van Amburgh

Madre Method: the unencumbered suckling of a calf on its own biological dam from birth to the age of 10 months.

There are three main commonalities of all successful dairy farms: the first is farmers that read and research, second is a good mineral and feed program for cows and soils (or nutrition program, as it may be called when incorporated in a feed ration), and the third is a good heifer program. Farms that do a top-notch job raising their replacements have healthier cows that perform and thrive. These farms suffer far fewer problems with their cows than the ones who lack proper management or the ones who rely on purchased, unknown, young stock.

Eight years ago we began raising our replacement heifers one-to-one on their mother. We have tried numerous other methods, but found all fall short. Most dairy farmers dismiss the technique of cows raising their own calf. They fear a financial disaster if they don’t sell all the milk from all of their cows.

We have seen that a cow raising her own calf for an entire lactation, as nature designed, is by far the best method of raising calves; it produces the healthiest, strongest, most disease-resistant, most resilient cows. In our opinion it is the only way to raise calves in a grain-free herd. It is also by far the most economical method for raising young stock.


We will tackle the economics of this method first so that you can feel safe to consider the option. We have to believe that we won’t go out of business when we put the milk into a calf rather than into the tank.

We first need a little shift in perspective. Consider that on dairy farms today calves and young stock consume largely one of the following four feeds: co-mingled/bulk tank milk, milk replacer, grain or corn silage. Prior to these modern feeds, calves had been raised on their mothers for centuries, even for cows of domestic and commercial milk production. The shift to grain and other feeds to replace milk for young stock really began to take root around World War II, and even then it took decades to become universal. It is very important to understand that when this practice began in the industry, milk was a premium product and grain and other inputs were cheap. The shift was an economic decision and not meant to improve the rearing process. In fact, great lengths were taken to develop complex rations that were aimed at replacing the missing “perfect food.” If one reads the literature of the time, it is very clear that the decision to sell the milk and feed the calf the less expensive grains, etc., was a profit-driven motive.

heifer with newborn
Photo by Laura Joseph

As Merton Moore and E.M. Gildow, D.V.M. of the Carnation Milk Farms state in Developing a Profitable Dairy Herd, “In either the native or domestic state, calves are best started on mineral-rich milk from mineral-rich grasses. Nature intended that the frame and body structure be developed first on mother’s milk and grasses, then on grass alone … With all their richness in energy-building properties, grains are low in minerals so necessary to build a complete bone structure.”

Since 1953, the tables have turned. At that time milk brought a premium price, and the grains were much less expensive. Today, dairy farmers are paying high prices for grain (to purchase it as well as to grow it) and sell the milk at a price far less than parity. The feed ration for calves is expensive and milk averages at a break-even price. The dairy industry, especially the handlers and markets, increase their profits when farmers sell all of their milk, not when they use it as a resource for themselves to improve their stock. This creates pressure for farmers to produce high volumes of milk for the milk industry and to ship every drop.

If the milk leaves the farm then calves must be raised on some sort of replacement. Replacements are inferior, but this fact does not concern the majority of the dairy industry (haulers, marketers, markets or handlers), just the farmers. The other players are not in the cow business, they just want a lot of milk, and it is up to the farmers to figure out the rest. The idea that any food other than mother’s milk could be better for a calf is propaganda.

The rations dairy farmers feed calves today are expensive, and the care we give them is labor-intensive. Many of us use resources to collect and cool milk and then warm it again. Others use cash from selling milk to purchase milk replacer or to grow or purchase grain or corn. Feeding grain or milk replacer is easier to evaluate than letting the calf suckle because we can put it into traditional cash flow and balance sheets. Some farmers see a benefit of feeding real milk over other feedstuffs, and they feed their calves milk from the bulk tank or milk from high SCC cows. This is a sensible method because the milk that is fed is a resource we already have, not one we have to earn cash for in order to purchase. This makes it closer to a profitable model. However, we are still incurring the costs of harvesting the milk, cooling it, then warming it, and we are using labor to feed and care for the calves. If this milk never has to enter the “cost chain” of the milking and labor, such as in a nurse cow system, then we are even closer to optimizing the resource. If a cow nurses her own calf, the farmer is using his own resource to invest in his own future.

As for true costs, the cost of raising the cow/calf pair is about the same as the cost of feeding one cow in the milk line. So it is the profit from the lactation that is “spent” on the calf — it is the profit from one lactation that is diverted from our cash flow directly into the calf. The profit on one cow lactation equals the cost of letting a cow raise her calf. I guarantee that on any given farm the profit from one cow’s lactation is less than the out-of-pocket expenses it takes to raise a calf by hand for the first year.

The economic evaluation can’t stop here. The impact on cull rate for the herd is also a major factor in evaluating the economy of this method. The health and longevity of cows raised by this method are significant. Cull rate is a function of the number of lactations we get from our cows (i.e. two lactations means each cow must be replaced every two years, or half the herd a year or a 50 percent cull rate). The more lactations we get from our cows, the lower the cull rate. At our farm we have a cull rate of 4 percent. That means that for our 65-cow herd, we only need two heifers each year. We can easily afford to let two of the 65 cows raise their calf each year.


The economy of raising young stock with our Madre Method is important, but the real benefit to our profitability comes by way of the health, vigor and sheer quality that these replacements achieve.

Consider the benefits to the young calf. The rapid rate of gain is a big advantage for the calf raised by mother. The calves grow at 2 pounds per day in the first eight weeks or so and then skyrocket so that by the time they wean at 10 months the average daily gain is between 3 and 4 pounds per day. We achieve these results with no grain for cow or calf, only pasture, hay, balage and minerals. The weaned heifer or bull is usually about 60 percent of its mature body weight with stores of fat that will be a savings account of health for the rest of its life. It works like this: the milk contains concentrated amounts of vitamins, minerals and other compounds for the optimal health of the calf; the calf grows fat to store these compounds (especially the minerals because they are fat-soluble), and they remain ready for use in the fat stores as the calf matures. It is those compounds, stored in the fat, that are used to heal, provide energy and to supply whatever is needed in times of stress, e.g. compromised nutritional intake because the feed was cut a little late or it was a wet spring.

calf nursing
The heifers raised on the Madre Method grow to be cows with strength, stamina, disease and infection resistance and fertility.

It is the fat stores that pull the cow through any rough period. The more fat the calf gains when it is little, the healthier and stronger it will be. Incidentally, there are some critics that warn against this method because they say that it produces “fat in the udder” and thus reduces subsequent milk yield. As the heifer grows, and especially after about four months drinking from her mother, she will develop a very chubby-looking udder due to the oxytocin in her bloodstream that she is ingesting via her mother’s milk. This is not fat; it is an active hormone system at work. Once the heifer is weaned, the young udder shrinks and eventually grows to be perfectly “normal,” as does the rest of her body type and general conformation, despite her paunch-ish beginning.

The heifers raised on the Madre Method grow to be cows with strength, stamina, disease and infection resistance and fertility. The oldest cow we have that was raised by her mother is 8 years old this May. She has given us six heifers and a bull, she maintains a low SCC, and she has never had a case of mastitis or any other health issues. She also looks half her age and shows no signs of slowing down. The same is true for the health of the ones raised Madre that have followed. We are very pleased with the level of performance our cows maintain. Our cows walk up to 2 miles a day, they breed back in less than 30 days, they produce about 9,000 pounds of milk and maintain a body score of 3-4 year-round on a ration of pasture and minerals in summer and balage and hay with minerals in winter. They also spend all their time outside, year-round, except on the coldest winter days and nights.

We have selected for these performance traits in our breeding program, and we are good managers, but even these skills cannot replace a healthy start. We understand that profit is made by optimizing each aspect of our farm operation and that healthy, strong cows perform better and are more reliable than ones that we must coddle. We have compared the vigor of cows raised by their mother to their relatives that were not, and we are convinced time and again that it is a major performance-influencing factor.

Genetic Expression

In order to achieve the best performance from our cows we need them to be healthy and strong. The genetic makeup of our cows has much to do with their potential but not all. The expression of traits relies on two factors: genetics and epigenetics. Genetics is not all “hard wired” or simply a result of the genes we get. In other words, how we function depends on genes and environment (things like management, nutrition, stress, weather, etc.). Epigenetics looks at the ways outside factors influence the way genes express, or “what you see.”

Most dairy farmers are breeding their cows to possess the traits they will need to bring profit to the farm. Epigenetics considers all of the factors that affect the expression and function of genes in human, animal and even plant life. Even though a heifer may have the genetic potential to produce a lot of high-butterfat milk, there may be conditions such as the weather, poor feed, etc. that prevent her from doing so. There are often permanent effects, like the heifer that “never really grew right” because she was set back as a calf. It is a new science and only partially understood. Some of the research has discovered tiny little meta-genes between the genes. Genetic researchers and some folks studying GMOs have called everything they don’t understand “genetic trash,” because they don’t have any idea of its function. You can be sure it is not “trash.” This oversimplified view of cattle genetics has compromised our breeding programs.

An animal will only fully express its genetic potential when the previous four generations have encountered optimum conditions such as good minerals, feed, water, suitable environment and have been exposed to manageable stress (allostasis). A high plane of nutrition is key to reaching our breeding goals. Cattlemen invest thousands of dollars in the best breeding stock and semen and then wean early, don’t feed high-quality feed or skimp on the mineral program.

white cow and calf
The genetic makeup of our cows has much to do with their potential but not all.

By its very nature, modern agriculture has left us all with depleted resources, namely low soil organic matter and mineral imbalances in soils, forages and crops. Our management practices must be aimed at remediating these deficiencies. This is a whole separate topic in itself, but we must take this into account.

We must give our cattle the best management through the whole process. If you want the best stock that you are capable of having, you must understand epigenetics. You must also understand how nutrition plays a major role in the epigenetics of our young stock. A cow makes milk that is specifically designed for the calf she has just birthed, and the profile of that milk changes for the calf as it grows. Raising the calves on their mother gives us a huge leg up in capturing the full genetic potential of our animals.

Once you have a barn full of animals that are performing to their highest potential, the selection process becomes easy. When there are no excuses for poor production we can select based on genes and performance. If we know that what we see is the true expression of the genetic makeup, cultivated with care, then we can cull out the problems. This is when the breeding program really gains speed and herd improvement gets going. Now the final benefit of full genetic expression and sound breeding decisions is added to the benefits of the Madre Method, and the sky is the limit.


The techniques for the Madre Method are variable, according to each farm setup, but the basic methods and goals are universal.

It is best if you can be present when the calf is born so that you can make sure it is able to nurse right away. It may need help. Dairy cows are not the same as beef cows, no matter who tells you that they are. Often dairy cows are low in energy after calving due to their propensity for making large volumes of milk and the associated metabolic demands. The calf is often a little low on energy as well, as a consequence. Give the mother and calf a few minutes to adjust, but be ready to help the calf stand and nurse within about 20 minutes. There is a side benefit to helping the calf nurse because the cow will smell you along with her calf, and adopt you too, giving you her milk readily when you milk her. The calf should get some good suckling in, but may need to take a break after only a few minutes.

There is no need to try to get the calf to suckle a full gallon or even quart of colostrum right away if this first round of suckling is very difficult. Of course a gallon right away is best, but the calf will have several opportunities to nurse in small amounts the first day. It is absolutely amazing to see the power of a small amount of colostrum nursed directly from the cow versus a much larger quantity administered by bottle. The calf will gain much strength by nursing small amounts in the first hours.

Once the calf gets the idea, it can usually be left alone with the cow until the next milking time arrives. It is best to isolate the cow/calf pair together away from the rest of the herd between milking for at least one day; three to five is even better. This will create a good strong bond between the two that will be very important at weaning time. Here again is a difference between beef and dairy cows: calves cross suck much more readily in a dairy herd. Dairy cows are trained to let “anyone” take their milk, and there is so much milk around that the calves will often go to any cow. If the calf is allowed to only suckle from its mother for the first week, there is usually no need to keep a close watch after that.

cow with suckling calf
Some cows are natural mothers and will stick close to their calves, urging them to suckle and others need some encouragement. They all come around eventually.

The cow and calf can become part of the milking group as early as you decide, depending on the logistics of trying to facilitate the bond. Ours usually begin running with the milk herd after the first 24 hours and sometimes as early as the first 12 hours after birth. At this time the calf runs with its mother day and night and has free access to her milk. At milking time, we milk the mother cow as we do all the others, taking whatever milk the calf has not drunk. We have a tie stall, so during the grazing season the calf comes in and out with the herd and usually rests in front of its mother or down at the end of the barn while we milk. If there are a few calves, they seem to like to lie down together somewhere until the cows are turned out again after milking. In other barns, some calves group together in an open stall of the free-stall while the mothers go through the parlor to be milked.

If the calf is born in the winter and the cows are in the tie stall for the day or over night because of winter weather, we tie the calf next to her mother for a week or so, then in a calf area, bringing her over to suckle before each milking or whenever we get a chance. Whenever the cows are turned out the calves go too.

During this time the calf is learning the milking routine, listening to the noises, learning to come in and out of the barn and learning to be tied in temporarily. This exposure makes training the heifers to milking much easier later on when they freshen.

As the calf grows there is gradually less milk from the mothers for the tank. Many times the calf will start out on only one teat, and then move to two, then three and finally four. I just take what is there. The only exception is that if I notice that a calf has not had a chance for its meal before milking, I will leave some milk for the calf to suckle after milking. An empty udder will encourage a hungry calf to seek milk from another cow, so I either bring the calf over to drink before I milk the mother, or I leave enough milk in the udder for the calf. It is very important that the calf get priority for the milk.

It works best to breed the mother cow back while she is still in the milking group, in the first eight to 12 weeks after calving. This is especially true if there is a bull breeding the cows because he will also breed a young heifer (as young as 5 months) if she is there.

At somewhere between 8 and 12 weeks old, depending on the production of the mother cow, the mother/ calf pair will be ready to move to pasture full time, or some other place that doesn’t require travel in and out of the milking regime. We put the pairs in their own group, or with dry cows and beef cows, out to pasture. The cow/calf pairs can then be managed as you would a nurse cow group or a dry cow group (however, the feed should be appropriate for cows that are lactating).

Any shortcomings in feed, weather, water, etc., will come out of the cows first, before the calves. The calves will suckle and demand the milk they need if the feed is inadequate, or the water is lacking, or it is too hot to graze. Be careful to keep the group well cared for or the cows will suffer. If poor conditions persist, the calves will suffer too.

The mother cow will do the rest of the job until weaning time. She will coax her calf to eat, teach her which plants to graze and countless other things. Weaning should come at a minimum of 8½ months, 10 months is best. The cells of the mammary gland grow four times faster than any other cells of the body in the young heifer between 6 and 10 months of age. We feel that continuing the optimal nutrition from mother’s milk should be maintained through this period. At 10 months it should be easy and stress-free to separate the cows from the young heifers. The initial bonding effort pays off at weaning because for the heifers that only nurse from their mother, once the mother goes away the young one just stops nursing. With that in mind, it is still a good idea not to put the weaned heifers in with dry cows right away (especially if the calves may have been cross sucking) as it may be too tempting to just go to the dry cows for a meal. So if the cow/calf group has the dry cows in it as well, it is best to remove the heifers rather than the cows.

As for heifers sucking on each other, we have yet to have this happen in our Madre system. We did lose some quarters to calves sucking on each other when we used to bottle feed, but have not had any cases since using the Madre Method. The heifers only suck to obtain milk, and not out of boredom or want of sucking. If there is no milk to drink, they don’t seem interested.

Once the heifers are weaned, the cow will be ready for her eight-week dry period before calving again, and the heifer will be ready to breed in three to five months.

The authors would like to thank dear friend and mentor, Gearld Fry, for encouraging them to develop this method and for the years of his loving wisdom and support.

Phyllis and Paul Van Amburgh run their 100 percent grass-fed dairy and beef farm with their five children, Grace, Vincent, Maggy, Oliver and Ruby in Sharon Springs, New York. The milk from their 65-cow dairy goes to Maple Hill Creamery and Horizon Organic. They are honored to announce that Dharma Lea has been selected as the Savory Institute Northeast USA Hub (“SI Northeast”) beginning in 2015, offering learning tools, seminars, demonstrations, workshops and courses to better assist farms in our Northeast region to reach their Holistic goals. They can be reached at dharmalea@gmail.com.

This article appears in the September 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.