Skip to main content

Calves and kids grow together at Cow Camp

Cow Camp, Owatonna, Clover Glen Farms
Kate Leski, who’s spending the summer with her grandparents in Owatonna, has her pick of calves to pet during Cow Camp. She was one of 14 students to attend the four-day camp at Clover Glen Farms, northwest of Claremont. Kate is from Arizona. Staff photo by Kay Fate
Kay Fate, Staff Writer

It sounds for all the world like a kitschy, cutesy Instagram project, but that couldn’t be further from the reality.

It’s Cow Camp – or, as the Community Education brochure calls it, “All About Cows-Rookie Camp.”

Marking its 15th year at Clover Glen Farms, the program drew 14 campers, which will bring the overall total to 223 kids. And Glenn Johnson and Deb McDermott-Johnson can probably name them all.

“We have four that have gone to nationals, we’ve had dairy princesses, some have won the dairy interview at the (Steele County) fair,” McDermott-Johnson said.

“We have one that’s about ready to graduate from vet tech, one heading off to pre-vet, one in ag finance,” she continued, looking at her husband, “and Hannah, is she going into genetics?”

The couple can provide names and career paths, as it turns out.

“Oh, yes. These kids have become part of our lives,” McDermott-Johnson said. “Some of them have been with us almost 10 years.”

But the kicker?

“Most of the kids who have been in camp are at least two – if not three – generations removed from the farm,” she said. “These are all kids who didn’t grow up on a farm, but they’re putting in the work and learning the industry.”

Still, “they’ll sit down at the picnic table and talk dairy and livestock,” Johnson said. “They’re ready to learn, and they want to learn.”

The camp

The four-day Cow Camp starts with a classroom day on Monday. McDermott-Johnson “teaches them everything about what they eat and how they eat and where and when, and about what we do,” Johnson said.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, “they’re here on the farm,” he said. “We pair them up with calves about the same size of the kid, so nobody gets hurt. They practice walking them around, and learning their way around the calves, and give them a bath.”

On the final day, “we take the calves to (Roosevelt) school so they can show their parents,” Johnson finished. “They lead them off the trailer themselves – there’s some watching going on, that’s for sure.”

As the brochure explains, “Please note that baby cows do not go home with you – all lovin’ and huggin’ happens at camp.”

The couple provides “a cow for each kid,” he said. “We’ve usually got an extra one or two,” but not this year.

They borrowed three calves from Rick Balzer and three from the Nelson family in Ellendale, to meet the need.

“We have 15 in the lot, waiting to calve,” Johnson said of his herd, “but they just aren’t cooperating.”

Clover Glen Farms, northwest of Claremont, usually runs about 80-90 cows, and the same number of heifers, he said.

The youngest student in this year’s camp just completed kindergarten; the youngest calf is 6 days old.

All the students live in town, but not necessarily in a Minnesota town.

“It’s actually a national camp,” McDermott-Johnson said. “We’ve had kids from Florida; we have a little girl from Arizona here this year. We’re trying to figure out how to get a kid from Canada, so we can make it an international camp.”

The Arizona student is Kate Leski, who’s spending the summer with her grandparents in Owatonna.

Her mom told her about the camp when they got to Minnesota.

“I didn’t really know what to think at first,” Kate said, “because I’d never heard of anything like it.”

And now?

“I really like it,” she said.

She’s not the only one.

The demand

“The first year, we had six kids, and we’ve had to add ever since,” Johnson said.

In fact, his wife said, “we had to institute a two-year limit, because the initial group wanted to keep coming back.”

This year, “we did add a few calves, but I still ended up with 16 on the waiting list,” McDermott-Johnson said. “We have a wait list just about every year.”

Because Cow Camp is a Community Ed offering, “it’s an open lottery,” she said. “It fills typically within the first three minutes of going live online. I think it goes live at 6 a.m., and as soon as it strikes six, parents have it in their cart and start hitting the ‘send’ button, hoping their kid gets in. But the word is out about how much fun this is, so the kids recruit their friends to come the next year.”

In order to capitalize on that interest, the couple developed All About Cows-Pro Camp, which also has a two-year limit.

That starts next week; the students come out two days a week until the Steele County Free Fair.

“Then those kids go to the Fair with us,” Johnson said, where they will show their animals during the Dairy Association’s Youth Show on Aug. 17.

Pro-campers must have completed two years of rookie camp.

“We get them started when they’re young, but as they get up there, they do more of the work themselves,” he said. “Nobody’s going to train for them.”

About a quarter of the kids who attend Cow Camp end up going into 4-H to continue working with animals, but “some kids bypass 4-H and come back every summer to show with us in the Open Class,” McDermott-Johnson said.

The alumna

Anna Cox, Isabella Schultz and Vanessa Gonzalez, all students at Owatonna High School, were at last week’s rookie camp as counselors … or cow-nselors.

“They’re graduates from this,” Johnson said.

Gonzalez came to Cow Camp when she was just 5.

“It was really fun, and I guess I never left,” she said. “I think my mom was surprised at how much I knew after” the first summer. “I knew the breed of my cow, I knew its birthday, I could tell who the parents were…”

“And how comfortable you become with them,” Cox said of the bond with the animals.

She’s one of those former campers who is heading to the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis. She’s been showing cows at the SCFF since 2017 and will show four this year.

Cox is considering a career in agriculture, “and that’s why I want to go to that convention,” she said. “There are so many job opportunities, more than you would think of.”

That’s exactly the point, Johnson said.

“They’ll introduce you to all kinds of vocations involved in ag, and with this kind of background, they’ve got a good start at what’s going on. I try to teach them everything I get a chance to, and hopefully they’ll bite somewhere.”

Cox has already ruled out veterinary medicine.

“I think we can get her into nutrition,” Johnson said. “She would love watching them grow, and (learning about) the feed. We haven’t talked a lot about it, but I think that’s something she would like, and a good place to start.”

Gonzalez, too, has ruled out being a large-animal vet.

“I don’t know if agriculture is the right path for me,” she admitted, “but I love it here. I love the animals a lot, and it’s good for me to do this in the summer.”

The future

The three graduates – and the others who volunteer their time at rookie camp – see themselves in the new crop of calf-handlers.

“It’s really fun to work with the little kids,” Gonzalez said. “I feel happy for them that they get the opportunity to do it, because it’s so fun. It’s something you want to stay with.”

Schultz said the progression through camp is also fun to watch.

“At first, they’re afraid to touch (the calves),” she said, but by the end of the week, “they’re hugging them.”

Another student who got her start at Cow Camp is Afton Nelson, who also happens to be a Steele County Dairy Princess.

“Afton did really well last year in FFA,” Johnson said. “She’s one of our dairy princesses, and these are our future ones,” he said, pointing at Gonzalez, Cox, and Schultz.

Nelson is headed to South Dakota State University in the fall, where she plans to major in animal science with a goal of becoming a large-animal vet.

All of that came from her time at Clover Glen Farms, she said.

“We grow up here, too, and it’s like an extended family,” Cox said. “He’s another grandpa to us,” she said of Johnson.

Those relationships are foremost, McDermott-Johnson said, “but for me, the real piece of this is watching kids disconnect from their electronics. Their souls are being touched by this; that empathy of taking care of something other than themselves.”

Cow Camp is molding futures, as unlikely as that seems.

Johnson nodded in agreement.

“It feels good, too.”

Sign up for News Alerts

Subscribe to news updates