'Til the Cows Come Home: MCHS Junior Brandon Towe hand-raises dairy calves as student business
Story and photos by Angelina Bellebuono
It’s 5 p.m. on a Wednesday in the middle of July. A brief but powerful summer thunderstorm rolled through earlier in the day, and the dirt beneath Morgan County High School junior Brandon Towe’s muck boots is damp and rich and dark.
A slight steam pulses up and around the 15 calf hutches dotting the calf pasture, or Lot 1, as Towe refers to it, but the calves don’t seem to mind: their giant, inquisitive eyes follow Towe intently as he moves through the grassy area between their pens.
When Towe reaches the edge of the field, where a rainbow of plastic buckets awaits filling, the chorus begins. It’s suppertime at Brandon’s Quality Calves, and the bevy of calves in Towe’s care have rumbling tummies. Already creatures of habit at less than six weeks old, these young bovine beauties depend on Towe, for he is everything to these growing girls – their surrogate mother, premium calf-caretaker and, last, but not least, agritculural entreprenuer.
Even at the relatively young age of 16, Towe is no stranger to cows. He’s been raising show cows for more than six years, and his father, Gary, has raised beef cattle. But when Brandon entered high school and enrolled in Tim Savelle’s Agriculture Education classes, he needed to choose a Supervised Agricutlural Experience (SAE) project as part of completing the coursework.
In considering SAE projects, Brandon was most interested in heifer replacement work, which can be a critical part of a commercial dairy farm because it removes the newborn calves from the cow and passes along the responsibility of raising the calf to someone else. Farmers rely on methods like this because cows produce more milk than the heifers can use, and a dairy farmer depends on getting cows back into the milk stream as soon as possible after calving, Savelle says.
“Raising a calf is labor intensive,” Savelle explains. “By contracting with someone else to raise and wean the calves, the dairy farmer frees himself up to concentrate on the dairy production.”
And Brandon thought he fit the bill to be that someone else.
But he also knew that this project would require some capital. “I knew I didn’t have the money to get started,” Towe says. “I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way I can buy the feed, buy the milk.’”
What Towe didn’t know was that most dairy farmers who contract for this work don’t expect the caretakers to bear the cost of feed or medicines for the young heifers. They provide these items as part of the contract. In talking with Savelle, Brandon realized he might be able to make the project work, after all.
In his freshman year, Brandon took on the care of 10 calves at a time. He got up extra early before school to take care of the calves. He mixed up their formula in the family’s kitchen and transported it out to Lot 1.
Without a fenced area around the hutches, the calves were secured by chains and dog collars.
“They got all in your way, and all wrapped around themselves,” he remembers.
The next year, with some guidance from Savelle, Brandon applied for an SAE grant for hutches with enclosed areas in the front of the hutches.
He took on 15 calves at a time. And he got up a little earlier, and worked a little later. But with some help from his dad, he ran water and electricity to a little shed already standing in the calf pasture, added a hot water heater and devised a formula mixing stand from the parts taken off a drill press, therefore making his daily feeding, medicating and record-keeping processes more efficient.
Now he’s adding 15 more hutches, he says, and soon, he will have the facilities to care for 30 youngsters at one time.
All this for an FFA project which, according to Savelle, requires that a student document just 20 hours of effort per year. Brandon estimates last year’s efforts totaled in at closer to 450 hours.
But the Brandon’s Quality Calves business is bigger than a school project. There’s money to be made, and Brandon’s making it. He charts his expenses and his earnings (the money he makes upon returning the six-week-old, weaned calves to the dairy farmer) using a software program he found and purchased. He pays for incidental business costs out of his earnings, as well as recently assisting his parents with the purchase of his pick-up truck.
Savelle is impressed with Brandon’s knack for entrepreneurship.
“Brandon is savvy,” Savelle says. “He is a businessman far beyond his years.”
Brandon is also humble. He doesn’t talk much about his project unless prodded. Then he states everything with a matter-of-factness that coats his words with maturity and confidence.
His parents are behind his work. Rhonda, his mother, is in charge of the morning wake-up. But it’s Brandon who puts on the boots and goes out into the cold or wet or dark to handle the calves.
“He doesn’t sleep until noon,” his father says.
His father grew up in a family that knew how to take care of themselves, and he believes strongly in the role of agriculture.
“It [the project] has taught him responsibility and discipline,” Gary says. “And we need to know where our milk comes from.”
Gary and Rhonda both assist with cow handling and wrangling, depending on which bovine beauty Brandon needs to medicate, feed or move. Gary will offer suggestions if a calf seems off or sickly. Rhonda can hold a bottle for a pushy calf without being pushed around. They all can take temperatures and pull medicine into syringes with ease.
As summer turns to fall, and school begins again, Brandon’s schedule will shift a little. He’ll mow a few less lawns (another side business), attend school, get ready for dairy cow show season, and run a nursery for up to 30 newborn calves who will arrive in Lot 1 hungry, confused and looking for their mothers. He’ll also be applying for SAE State Proficiency, which he believes will take some serious effort.
“It’s pages and pages of writing,” he says.
Which, to the casual observer, might seem like small beans compared to the gallons of formula that must be mixed, bottled, distributed and cleaned up, or the balancing of school work and farm work, or the management of medicine and feed.
But even if it’s serious effort, Brandon’s probably not going to be daunted.
He has aspirations of being a large animal vet, and, according to Savelle, if Brandon wants to be a large animal vet, he’ll be able to make it happen.
In the meantime, there’s some work to be done to make his business more viable, Brandon says. Always looking forward, he’s busy installing additional fencing in his calf pasture.
More fencing means more space and more space means healthier calves, he explains.
And at Brandon’s Quality Calves, with a live-calf return rate well above the state’s requirement, healthy calves are more than a school project. They’re good for business.