Is raising Bottle Calves on the Farm right for you?
Do you have a few acres and looking for a way to make it profitable? Have you dreamed of having a barnyard full of animals? Are you looking to engage your children on the homestead and teach them responsibility at the same time? Raising bottle calves can be both fun and profitable. We have raised bottle calves as a way to teach our children responsibility while helping them earn money for their future.
However, there are at least 5 questions to ask before raising bottle calves.
- What is the purpose of raising bottle calves?
- What is the cost of raising bottle calves?
- What are the advantages of raising bottle calves?
- What are the disadvantages of raising bottle calves?
- What are the special considerations of raising bottle calves?
This article is part of a series to help you make informed purchasing decisions about different farm animals. You can read the farm animal overview and a complete list of animals evaluated at A Beginner’s Guide to Animals on the Farm.
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Purpose of Raising Bottle Calves
This is probably the most important question to ask yourself when considering purchasing bottle calves. I’ve purchased many animals just because I thought it would be fun or the baby animal was cute.
In fact, when it comes to bottle calves, there was one calf in particular that I purchased just because it was cute. She ended up being the most mischievous calf we have ever owned. We had planned to raise her up as a replacement dairy cow, but after all the trouble she caused we sold her. I learned a valuable lesson.
Cuteness is NOT a good reason to purchase a calf. Here are some good reasons to purchase an animal.
- meat or other food product such as milk
Are Bottle Calves Profitable?
I remember when we first started raising bottle calves I did some quick math in my head and thought, “If I raise 40-50 bottle calves a year, I could make a living doing this.” However, after further figuring, I realized I would have to invest a lot of money for a calf barn, feed, vet care, etc. Not to mention the labor of feeding 40-50 calves.
As with any type of farming, there are risks beyond your control. I will talk about this later in the disadvantages. Bottle calves are pretty easy to raise until they get sick. Then it becomes a fight for life very quickly. Unless you are experienced in caring for sick calves and the signs to watch for, your calf can die within a day or two. When you start losing calves it cuts your profits quickly.
However, raising calves can be profitable. It is hard for me to give you hard, fast figures because I have seen bottle calves sell for $100-200 when the markets are tight and I have seen them sell for $15 when the market is saturated with calves. It is the same when you sell the calves. If the cattle price is high and you sell high, great, however, if the prices are low, then you may not make anything. It is a gamble, really.
Meat or Milk
Most bottle calves are bull calves born to a dairy cow. Obviously, dairy farms have no use for bull calves since only females can give milk. Therefore, most dairy farms sell the bull calves to people who raise these calves to raise for meat. Bull calves must be castrated to be raised for meat.
Once castrated, it is called a steer. Uncastrated males are called bulls. Bulls do not make good meat animals because they are said to have a strong taste, do not grow as fast and fat, and can be aggressive. Therefore, if you raise bottle bull calves, it is important to either learn how to castrate them or have a veterinarian castrate them.
You may be interested in raising a bottle calf heifer (female) for a future milk cow. This is a great idea, however, please be careful where you purchase your heifer calf. I do not recommend buying heifer calves at a sale barn because it is highly possible she is a twin and if she is twinned with a bull calf she will be sterile and unable to have a calf, therefore unable to milk. I wrote an article about 6 places to buy bottle calves that gives you other places to buy bottle calves.
Bottle calves could possibly make a good pet, however, there are many other farm animals that would be much cheaper to keep as pets. Bottle calves will grow to be 700-1200 or more pounds, therefore eventually will eat quite a bit of feed as an adult. If you have a large pasture, they are inexpensive to keep.
Typically, however, raising bottle calves usually have a purpose of meat or milk, rather than a pet.
Cost of raising the Bottle Calves
Is it cost-effective to raise bottle calves on the farm? Not every animal is raised for a profit. Some animals are on the farm to protect other animals. Some animals raised on the farm are a pet. However, most of the animals must earn money in order to justify owning it. Bottle calves are definitely one that needs to earn money.
Here are some cost considerations:
- Cost of the calf
$15-150 depending on the market
- Milk replacer
$60-100 per 50 lbs bag
(If you have a milk cow, you can supplement or possibly exclusively feed cow’s milk, depending on how many calves you have.)
We start our calves on a Sweet 18 mix within a week or two.
$16-20 for 50 lbs.
- Hay (price varies depending on availability)
Calves probably won’t eat hay for a few weeks, but we offer it to them.
straw (price varies depending on availability)
This can be in an existing structure on your farm or in calf huts. I bought mine used on Craigslist for $100 each
The longer you keep your bottle calves, the more money you will get for the animals since buyers usually pay a per-pound price. However, it is really difficult for me to give you a set amount you will make on a bottle calf or finished steer. The market price varies so much. I suggest you look at your local market prices to determine how much you can make.
Advantages of keeping Bottle Calves
Bottle Calves as a Short or Long Term commitment
Bottle calves can be a short or a long term commitment depending on how long you keep them. You can sell them at different stages. If you buy several calves at once for a bulk price, you can sell them right away to people who are looking for one or two calves.
You can sell them once you wean them from the bottle. Many people do not want to deal with bottle feeding but are willing to raise them once weaned. You can wean calves at 6-8 weeks.
You can raise them up to yearlings and sell them to someone to finish them. Spring is a great time to sell yearlings because people are looking for calves to put out on pasture.
You can raise them to maturity – 18-24 months. You can sell them as grass-fed or corn finished. How long you keep bottle calves will depend on your individual situation and the size of your farm and the resources you have such as pasture and crops.
Teaching Children Hard Work and Responsibility.
In our family, we raise bottle calves with our children to teach them how to work hard and take responsibility for another life. It also helps them earn money for their future. This has been a very successful project for our family, but I will warn you, teaching these skills to children takes time and effort.
It takes time to train the children to go out twice a day to feed their calves. It takes effort to be consistent in requiring them to do the work, rain or shine. Children are still developing and when the newness of the calf wears off, children start to resist caring for the calves because it is hard work. Be prepared for this and plan on how to deal with laziness and irresponsibility. I have found that once my children get into the habit, it does become easier. And about the time they learn the routine, the calves are being weaned so it gets easier for them. The first time is the hardest. For my children, once they saw the money roll in when they sold the calves, it was much easier to raise the next batch of calves because they knew the end results.
Disadvantages of Raising Bottle Calves
Scoured or Sick Calves
Certainly, the biggest disadvantage of raising calves is sickness. When a calf gets sick, they are hard to bring back. A sick calf can die very quickly, like within a day or two. The two main illnesses that kill calves are scours (diarrhea) and respiratory problems.
It is so important to watch calves closely for scours. That means looking at their backside daily and assessing their manure. It takes experience and practice. Scours can be caused by overfeeding. You will feed your calf according to the milk replacer directions. Your calf will always seem hungry and it is so important not to overfeed your calf. You can read more about the 5 steps to raising bottle calves. You can read more about treating scoured calves too.
Raising bottle calves is at least a twice-daily commitment. You will not be able to go away for the weekend or go on vacation. You may be able to find someone to watch your animals, but bottle calves are a bit touchy and the animal sitter should be experienced with calves. It isn’t like hiring a dog or cat sitter.
As bottle calves grow they are less work, but more space needed as they grow. If you do not have a fenced barnyard or pasture, you will probably have to sell them once they are weaned.
Special considerations for Bottle Calves
Ease of keeping the bottle calves
Bottle calves are easy to keep at first. They do not take up much space. You can put them in a calf hut with a cattle panel pretty inexpensively. However, as the calves grow they will need much more space and you will need fenced areas to keep them.
When calves are young, they will require a lot of time and care. As they grow and are weaned, they need much less time and care.
Environmental factors – housing, feed, noise
A newborn calf need shelter such as a calf hut or a place in a barn or shed. The shelter must be dry and draft-free. However, as they grow, most likely they will not need shelter except if you live in extremely cold temperatures.
Calves will need a milk replacer for the first 6-8 weeks. They will also need hay and grain such as sweet 18-mix. You may want to price these things at your local feed store before purchasing bottle calves. You can read about other supplies in 5 Steps to Raising Bottle Calves.
Calves make noise. If you live in a populated area, for example, if you have neighbors nearby, calves can be loud. They will moo when they are hungry. Keep this in mind when purchasing your calves.
Quiet or Aggressive
Are bottle calves quiet or aggressive? Bottle calves are cute and calm when they are young. As they grow, they can become pushy, however, rarely aggressive if they are bottle raised. You can read more about the advantages and disadvantages of owning tame cattle. Be sure to castrate bull calves to curve aggression problems.
Ability to raise in different settings – Rural/ Suburban/ City
The best setting for bottle calves is a rural setting. A suburban setting may work if there is the right set up such as adequate distance from neighbors, fenced pastures, etc. Be sure to check with your local zoning before buying bottle calves. Obviously a city setting is not a setting for calves.
A Beginner’s Guide to Animals on the Farm
If you are interested in learning about other farm animals, check out the Beginner’s Guide to Animals where there is a list of articles related to animals on the farm.
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