Got Kefir? ‘Best Kept Secret’ for Healthy Organic Calves

By Jody Padgham, MOSES


One of the most important keys to success in organic dairy production is the rearing of healthy calves. This can be especially challenging for a farmer who has relied on antibiotics to treat health issues. A successful organic system will be based on maintaining calf health and preventing diseases and other challenges from occurring.

A very successful organic calf rearing system was showcased at a recent pasture walk hosted by the Northwest Wisconsin Graziers Network at the Mervin and Diana Johnson farm in Barron County, Wis. Organic for 10 years, the Johnsons graze 75 mixed-breed cows, including Holstein, Jersey, Brown Swiss, Normande and Fleckvieh, on 130 acres.

Mervin and his son, Phillip, are pleased with their calf-rearing system of feeding whole-milk kefir combined with management of calves from ages 3 days through 3 months in group pens on grass.

Kefir Offers Intestinal Support

Diana Johnson explained that the family was first introduced to kefir as a household food product about 10 years ago. Kefir is a fermented milk drink believed to originate in the Caucasus Mountains of central Europe and Asia. It is made with “kefir grains,” which look like a soft head of cauliflower, but are a live mass of bacteria and yeasts. The kefir milk has a sour taste, somewhat like yogurt, and contains many beneficial micro-organisms that enhance the health of the digestive system.

“We were enjoying kefir at home, and I decided to try it on the calves,” Mervin said. He’s been impressed with the thriftiness of calves that he has seen since. “I think kefir is the best-kept secret out there.” Several other farmers attending the pasture walk backed him up on this statement. “We used to lose a lot of calves to sickness,” said one attendee. “We haven’t lost a calf in the few years we’ve been feeding kefir.”

Dr. Guy Jodarski, staff veterinarian at Organic Valley, added that he has seen a lot of success with calves fed kefir. “I especially like to recommend kefir to farmers just getting into organic, because this is where we see a lot of trouble with calves.” One of the farmers present chimed in with his story of being in the first year of organic production and really struggling with keeping 2-week to 2-month old calves alive. “I started feeding kefir, and now my 3-month calves are strong, weighing twice what they did at that age before. Kefir has really been a miracle for my calves.”

Kefir is made at the Johnsons by mixing fresh raw milk in 5-gallon buckets with kefir grain “culture” or “mother.” Ideally the live kefir culture comes from a farmer or household that has some to spare, but dried kefir grains can be purchased via the Internet or from most health food stores. One cup of (hydrated) culture is enough for one gallon of milk if cultured for 24 hours. Once added to milk the culture will grow. Since it is reused to create new batches, anyone actively culturing will generally have extra to share.

Since the Johnsons feed calves twice a day, they add twice as much culture and maintain it at a warm temperature to speed up the process. A controlled room they use for barley sprout production is perfect for keeping the buckets at 70 degrees F to allow the culture to ferment. After 12 hours, the kefir milk is mixed, poured through a large colander into a bucket, and the kefir grains are saved and added to another five gallons of milk for the next batch.

“This is the only milk we feed calves,” Mervin said. Although the Johnsons generally leave the calves on their moms for 2 or 3 days, if for some reason they don’t do this, they will make kefir of the colostrum and feed that to the newborns. The kefir is mixed with a little warm water to bring the temperature up before feeding. They bulk feed into feeders with multiple nipples, with one gallon kefir equivalent to one gallon of milk. Mervin and Phillip continue this routine until the calves are 3 months old.

When asked if the kefir causes scours, Mervin laughed. “We use the kefir to treat scours,” he said. In fact, he now uses kefir in the dairy barn to treat illnesses. “We had a cow each of the past few years with odd, DA-like symptoms (displaced abomasum). I fed each of them a quart of kefir (via tube) several times and within 2 days they were each completely back to normal.” Whenever he has a cow that doesn’t “look quite right” Mervin gives her a gallon of kefir and she perks up in a matter of hours.

Calf Groups on Grass

Another key to the Johnsons’ success with calves is a moveable pen system on grass. When calves are 2 to 3 days old they are taken off their moms and put out on the pasture into a 20 by 20-foot pen with up to 9 others about the same age. Using a bulk feeder with multiple nipples, the calves are fed kefir and allowed to eat pasture. The pen is moved with a small jeep (or ATV) one to three times per day, depending on how many are in the pen, their ages and the condition of the pasture. Since the Johnsons try to have all the farm’s calves born in the five warmest months, a majority are reared through this pasture-based system.

Johnsons have tried a couple of different pen designs, one made of welded steel, and one made of lighter weight gates. All of the pens are covered at least half way with shade cloths from FarmTech. “Shade is important, especially for the really young calves” Phillip claimed. “On really hot days they’ll spend all of their time in the shade.” The pens have wheels on one side and skids on the opposite side to make it easier to pull.

The Johnsons and Dr. Jodarski see several benefits to having the calves out on pasture so early. First, they get used to eating grass, and have no transition time to becoming successful adult grazers. The group pen allows them to become socialized to the other calves, again making an easier transition to the adult group dynamics. Obviously the nutrition from the grass is beneficial to the young animals. Dr. Jodarski pointed out the value of young calves being able to selectively graze on diverse pasture for plants that have natural deworming characteristics. He explained that by moving pens before the grass gets below four inches, and not running over the same ground more than once or twice a season, any potential parasite problems will be avoided.

Fed kefir twice per day, the calves also have free access to water, mineral and hay, but are not fed any grain. As they get close to 3 months of age, the kefir is fed in open pails instead of through the nipple system, a transition that helps reduce ear sucking once the calves are weaned and placed out in groups in the regular pasture rotation.

Beyond the testimonials, the shiny coats and frisky nature of the calves at the Johnson farm proved that this system of organic calf rearing is working well. Using both kefir and group pasture pens the Johnsons were happy with the health and thriftiness of their calves, and the ease of their transition into successful, healthy adult grazing cattle.

Jody Padgham is the Organic Broadcaster editor.

July/August 2013

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