EARLY GUIDANCE — Doug Rebout helps a calf become accustomed to an automatic milk-feeding station. Calves arriving at the Rebout’s new barn are guided to the station for the first two or three feedings. Photo By Jane Metcalf
Rebouts invite Facebook friends for open house
When Doug Rebout decided to host an open house for the family’s new calf and heifer facilities, he issued the invitation to his friends via social media.
He invited those who had “friended” him on his Facebook page. About 40 of his 300 “friends” attended the open house Saturday afternoon.
The Roger Rebout and Sons Farm got its start in 1963, when Roger and Mary Jo Rebout purchased the farm west of Janesville on Mineral Point Road.
Today, the partnership includes Roger and Mary Jo, as well as their three sons, Doug, David and Daniel Rebout.
The partnership includes 4,000 acres of owned and rented cropland, a grain set-up, a 140-cow dairy and dairy-steer facilities.
The calves and heifers were being raised in a traditional dairy barn down the road from their milking facilities, and it suffered from all the ventilation problems inherent with a barn built in 1911.
The three brothers were thinking about putting an end to their dairy enterprise, recalls Doug.
It was when they learned the next generation wanted to continue the dairy operation that their plans changed. Once they knew David’s and Daniel’s sons wanted to stay on the farm, they decided to upgrade their calf and heifer facilities.
The farm now employs David’s sons, Nathan, 21, and Eric, 22, on a full-time basis, and Daniel’s son, Patrick, 17, who is a high-school student, works part-time.
The Rebouts began their upgrade by looking at other farmers’ calf and heifer facilities, and they asked a lot of questions.
In the end, they modeled their calf barn after that of Ted and Chuck Meier of Waunakee, tweaking its features just a bit.
They started construction of their two barns in early October and moved the animals in on December 29. Bob Connell of Janesville’s Connell Construction, the Rebout’s cousin, built both barns.
The centerpiece of the calf barn is a Holm and Laue automated feeding system. The Rebouts determined the automated calf feeders would cost the same as individual calf pens and would require a lot less labor. Plus, from what they could see at other facilities, the calves appeared healthier.
They did have concerns about the system. They had worried that calves sucking on a common nipple might result in the quick spread of common calfhood infections, but that hasn’t turned out to be the case.
They also had worried that having calves in a common pen would result in sucking behaviors that would lead to blind quarters in their milking herd down the road. They’ve found the calves don’t suck each other because their hunger is always satisfied.
The calves are born on the family’s main dairy farm and are housed in individual pens for two or three days. Once they’re drinking well from a bottle, the calves are moved to the new calf barn.
After being guided to the calf-feeding station two or three times, the calves figure out where to go when they’re hungry.
The barn itself measures 66- by 70-feet, and it has side curtains on the north and south sides and overhead doors on the east and west ends.
Inside, the barn is split up into four pens that have gates that swing to the center so each half can be cleaned and bedded without calves underfoot.
Up to 25 calves stay in each pen for about a month, at which time they’re moved to the next pen. A feeding station is located in each of the warmer, south-facing pens for the one- and two-month old calves.
The pen for the three-month-old calves has slant bar feeder panels, and the pen for the four-month-old calves has headlocks, all designed to transition calves to conditions they will face as older heifers.
The milk-feeding equipment sits in the center of the barn. Milk from the milking herd, which is located just down the road, is pasteurized, and then fed into the automated feeders.
Calves wear RFID ear-tags, and the system is programmed to read the tag and allow calves to drink milk three times during every 12-hour period.
A display monitor tells workers the age of the calf, how much each individual calf has consumed that day, how much it is programmed to receive, when it last ate and when its next visit is allowed, for example.
The system is programmed to rinse itself after each calf’s feeding, plus workers completely clean and sanitize the system at the end of each day.
The Rebouts have programmed the system to start cutting back on the amount of milk calves are allowed to drink at six weeks of age so, by the time they’re moved to the barn’s third pen at eight weeks of age, they’re completely weaned.
“It’s a lot less physical labor and more management,” Doug says of the system.
Instead of bottle-feeding individual calves, workers are spending their time checking the computer and observing calves more.
The system is not labor-free. Milk still has to be brought up from the milking parlor, the youngest calves have to be guided to the milk-feeding system a couple of times, and feed still needs to be pushed up to the older calves.
The Rebouts believe the barn set-up and the feeding system will work well for them. They’re already seeing pens of contented calves and, at similar set-ups, farmers report better-growing calves.
“From what we’ve seen at other farms, the calves are healthier,” Doug noted. “(People at) other farms say that the calves are two inches taller when they’re weaned.”
Three-sided heifer barn
The second part of the Robout’s production facility sits just to the west of their new calf barn. The three-sided heifer barn holds heifers from roughly five months of age until a month before freshening.
The 36- by 200-foot barn, with a southern exposure, has six bays, with each bay having a 40-foot outdoor concrete run and headlocks.
The heifers are fed a TMR at a bunk on the south side of the runs. The barn can hold up to 150 head.
Doug says the Rebout family was at a crossroad about their future in the dairy industry a few years ago before family members knew the next generation wanted to continue the dairy part of their farming business.
Having made the transition to new facilities, though, the partners feel they made the right decision.
“We’re glad we stuck with it,” he says.