Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Vivian Arndt really loves her calves

Harley Wagenseller and Vivian Arndt Published on 20 November 2013
Vivian Arndt and calves

“Have you beheld a man (or woman) skillful in his work? Before Kings is where he will station himself; he will not station himself before commonplace men.” So says Proverbs 22:29.

We have all observed certain individuals who just seem to excel at their given occupation.



Whether it is on the people side or the operations side, they just “get it.”

Some people simply put milk in a bucket or bottle, give it to the calf and see you next shift.

Not so with Vivian Arndt. She and her husband, Bernard, own Arndt Dairy Farm, a 110-cow grazing dairy in High Springs, Florida.

Vivian, who spent most of her career as a labor and delivery nurse and then a childbirth educator, brings quite a unique perspective to calf care. Since joining the dairy as a calf care specialist, her record of quality calves is exceptional.

Let’s take a look at her unique qualifications and see what we can learn:


(Vivian in her own words)
On our small farm, we had 35 calves born in one month, with 30 of them being heifers. That is a huge amount for a small understaffed family dairy, so I was pressed into service.

While the guys had a tremendous amount of work just milking, feeding and breeding cows, calves were not getting all the attention they deserved. They were kept clean. Their buckets were filled with milk. And that was it.

Although we had a pretty fair calf survival rate, there was no one who would say the calves were thriving. At first I spent nine-hour days at the dairy trying to learn the system and looking for ways to make it more efficient.

One basic thing was to clean buckets, nipples and bottles between each calf. That sounds like basic 101 if you are a dairy owner, but trust me, to an overwhelmed tired milker who is feeding calves on a 30º rainy night, it sounds like rocket science.

So we bought extra nipples so there did not have to be any “sharing.” I also set up a drying rack in the milk room so all bottles, nipples and buckets had a specific place to air dry between feedings.



In the medical field, there is an excessive amount of record-keeping.

I borrowed that good idea but toned it down to be more practical out in the field.

A spiral notebook worked well to record each calf’s date of birth, dam and sire, record vaccines given and track any health problems encountered.

I also keep index cards in a simple recipe box. Each calf has her own index card.

No matter what is going on, it is just a simple flipping though my homemade calf Rolodex to see immediately what is going on with each calf.

We have since invested in a computer program, which keeps track of all that – but having lived in Florida through many hurricane seasons, I have learned the value of keeping hand-printed records.

Another change was to separate the feeding of the calves from the responsibility for their overall training, health and well-being. By necessity, the milkers dole out the milk at the end of the milking shift because that is when the milk is available.

Also, milk shifts rotate and it isn’t uncommon for a calf to be fed by two or three different people over a weekend. That lack of “continuity of care” is where I believe the gaping hole lies in some calf caring regimens.

So now, on our farm, the calves are still fed early morning and early evening after each shift by the milkers, but that is all the milkers have to do. I now oversee everything else and I communicate with the milkers if there is anything special they need to watch for. I come midday, and that is when my work begins.

The first thing I do is a “meet and greet.” I call them by name (yes, they each get a name as well as a number on their ear tags), but what I am really doing is checking noses and tails. I have asked the milkers to do this also when they feed.

That basic two-second glance tells you where you stand with each calf. I am looking for warm, moist noses and dry, fluffy tails. A hot nose, a runny nose, even a cold nose all tell volumes about how that calf is really doing, and as for tails – we all know what a wet, slimy tail means.

While I am doing this, I will move the pens as needed. I keep my calves on a grid like the squares on a checkerboard, and they are moved a minimum of every other day so that they always have a tuft of fresh grass to explore and nibble on.

They are bottle-fed for the first 72 hours of life and then weaned onto a bucket. Each calf is given a water bucket at the same time it gets a milk bucket.

I coax them to drink water, as I know that this is important for them to learn to enjoy. A cow that has learned to enjoy drinking water makes more milk. While it is true that any animal will drink when thirsty, I am trying to instill a “desire” for it in my young calves.

So I roll it around in the bucket, splash it and – sure enough – it isn’t long before they are “playing” in it, including playing with the hose that dispenses the water.

Learning how playful their nature can be has been a delightful surprise for me. It has led me to do some research, and I have found there are some interesting studies that show cows have long memories and a complex social hierarchy similar to that of wolves living in a pack.

For that reason, I think it is very important (since I am responsible for the first memories that are going into that long-term memory bank) that their early experiences be good ones. I talk to them in that high-pitched tone you would use to praise a puppy.

I physically handle them each day, petting and stroking their backs and bellies. Their future as a milk cow will require they be comfortable with being touched by humans, so we start right away.

The sucking reflex is very strong, but I gently try to redirect affection by scratching under the chin and up the jaw and behind the ears instead, which they love and can never get enough of.

If they had remained in a herd with their mother, there would have been a tremendous amount of social interaction and communication taking place. By removing them from their mother, we have interrupted that process and it is important that we replace it with “mothering” of another kind.

It is for that reason that when I look at my calves I see babies. Four-legged and furry babies but babies nonetheless, fully wired for all the needs of any baby mammal. In addition, being herd animals adds another intricate layer of needs they are hardwired to require.

They need to have other calves nearby. Even a sick calf, while needing to be kept apart, still needs to be able to visually see that it is still part of its “herd.” A sick calf will usually get better. A sick, depressed calf – not so much.

Speaking of sick calves, I have had the tremendous sadness of losing a few. I have to say it is rare. Good hygiene with buckets and nipples and most importantly access to high-quality colostrum goes a long way to the making of a healthy calf.

When a calf does get sick, I begin supportive treatment immediately. In addition to medication for scours, I supplement with an oral hydration formula of eight level teaspoons of sugar and one teaspoon of salt mixed in to a quart of warm water.

I feed this a half-quart every two hours using a bottle. Just like a sick baby will revert back to more infantile behavior, so will a calf. Sucking a bottle is soothing to them and gets them hydrated better than just a bucket of water.

If the scours linger or are more profuse, I might add a bottle of lactated Ringers to my formula to up the mineral content. The key is small amounts more often.

Once they are “better,” I continue to hydrate them for another day or so until they are clearly back up to speed. They enjoy the bottles and the petting and being talked to. Touch is another form of healing and they respond well to it.

Another thing that would be naturally occurring in nature is they would be mimicking their mothers’ grazing and eating patterns. They are naturally curious and very orally fixated, and that works to our advantage if we let it.

I offer grain beginning the second week of life. I use a simple calf starter top-dressed with a small amount of commercial calf milk replacer. This is the only time I use milk replacer, since they are fed whole milk as their mainstay.

They are drawn to the milky smell and become curious about the grain. I start with a very small amount and what isn’t eaten is taken away each day and replaced with fresh. Small amounts and very fresh is the key. There is no waste this way as long as you feed the remainder to older calves.

The introduction of grain is followed in a day or so by the introduction to hay. I give each calf a small twist of hay to play with each day. Some calves will be fascinated with the hay over the grain – and others with the grain and not the hay.

Either way, the eating of one quickly leads to acceptance of the other. Getting them on small amounts of hay and grain to supplement their milk almost guarantees no sickness from that point on. They get very hardy and sturdy very quickly.

I wish I had some mysterious awe-inspiring trick to share as to the “secret” of raising a great calf instead of just a good one. The truth is: It all boils down to consistency in care, vigilance, cleanliness and a personal interest in each calf.

After all, when I care for these little bovine beauties, I am investing not just in their future, but my own as well. If I raise them to be the confident and healthy cows they are meant to be, they will be taking care of me in the years to come.

There is certain synchronicity about it that makes all the work I do right now full of meaning and purpose. There is a very full-circle feeling to it all. PD

Wagenseller is a dairy manager in High Springs, Florida.

PHOTOS:Florida dairywoman Vivian Arndt brings a unique perspective to calf care with a previous career as a labor and delivery nurse. She’s pictured above with fellow dairyman Harley Wagenseller explaining calf care practices on her 110-cow grazing dairy. Photos courtesy of Tammy Wagenseller.

Vivian Arndt

Dairy producer
High Springs, Florida