Calf-care facilities featured during Cow College farm tour

Dan Hansen
One of the 80 super hutches that house young calves on the Wagner farm.

SHAWANO COUNTY – Most dairy producers in Northeast Wisconsin raise their own herd replacements, and have special facilities and protocols that enable them to provide the best care for their young calves on the farm.

However, there are also other separate area facilities that specialize in raising young dairy and beef calves. 

About three dozen producers and industry professionals visited two calf-rearing facilities as the 2018 UW-Extension Cow College concluded with a farm tour in eastern Shawano County.

The first stop was at Wagner Farms west of Oconto Falls, which was established  in 1896 and currently has a herd of 640 dairy cows. Hank and Pam are the fourth generations owners. Their son, Shawn, and daughter, Laura, represent the fifth generation, are part owners and also work on the farm.

Three generations of the Wagner family, from left, are: Tony, his son, Hank, Hank’s daughter, Laura, and son, Shane, and Hank’s wife, Pam.

“Shawn is in charge of crops and machinery. Laura is in charge of animals, which includes everything from cats, to cows to horses, and she does a really good job,” Hank said.

Pam helps with the animals and does lawn maintenance. Laura’s husband, Tyler Haatz, is in charge of feeding. The farm employs five Hispanic milkers, a chief mechanic and a part-time employee who helps with calves.

Maternity barn

After leaving the farm’s heated shop, tour participants filed through the maternity area, which Laura calls, “the center of many activities that includes maternity pens, colostrum pasteurizer and milk taxi that’s used feed calves. It has an accurate dispense to make sure every calf gets the right amount.”

Colostrum is given to calves the first day. “We test all colostrum for total solids,” said Laura. “Anything 22 or higher goes to our heifer calves. Anything that is less is placed in separate containers and is fed to bull calves.” 

She explained that calves receive a one-time feeding of four liters of colostrum. “After that, calves go into our warming room in the winter, and once dried off they go right out to the calf hutches. In the summer months, as soon as they’re born and get their colostrum, they immediately go into the calf hutches.”

Calf hutches

Wagners house younger calves in 80 super hutches. “We decided to try putting two hutches together,” Laura noted. “We put a calf in each hutch, and within five hours they were together, and from that moment on they slept in the same hutch until they reached 250 pounds.”

To reduce naval sucking, a gate divider is placed between the two calves, which is removed when they reach three or four weeks of age. “We feed three times a day, and different color leg bands are used to indicate how much milk the different calves receive,” Laura said.

Calves are fed whole milk from their hospital parlor, where fresh cows and special needs’ cows are milked three times per day. “Milk balancer is added to increase protein and help maintain consistency in milk quality. Vitamin A and D shots are also given at tagging on day one. Fresh cows may get milked in the maternity area up to six times,” Laura said.

There’s a strict cleanliness protocol for the calves. “Everything that touches the calves is thoroughly sanitized,” she stressed.

Heifer calves remain on the farm until they reach six months of age. “We then send a semi load to Nebraska, where they’re bred, and come back to the farm about two months before calving.” Laura said.

“The facility in Nebraska provides a much better environment for raising the calves and at a lower cost,” Hank emphasized. “Their feed costs are lower, and they don’t have the overhead that we have here.”

Green Valley calf facility

Tour participants saw calf raising on a larger scale at the Green Valley Calf Facility southeast of Cecil.

Known as the White Clay Lake facility, it’s owned separately from the Jacobs family’s Green Valley Dairy, which also has operations in Brown, Oconto and Outagamie counties.

Situated on 400 acres, the site includes nine barns housing nearly 5,000 calves born at Green Valley Dairy or purchased elsewhere. They’ve also increased the purchase of beef calves.

“Calves are brought here at 10 weeks old,” explained Paul Jacobs, who manages the facility that has seven employees. “We don’t sort them too much at that time, and let them adapt. We pre-condition them and make sure they get their vaccines. After they’ve been here for three weeks, we begin to group them, and then keep them sized properly.”

The calves are raised at the farm until they are 160 days old, at which point heifers are shipped to Iowa and then transferred about 16 months later to Green Valley Dairy, just in time to deliver calves and begin producing milk. At 160 days old, the steers are shipped to the Kansas processing plant.

“We put a significant amount of emphasis on animal husbandry and animal welfare and environmental sustainability practices, along with the personal professional development of all our employees,” said John Jacobs.

“While we’re among the largest dairy operations in Shawano County, we’re not concerned with size,” he stressed. “We don’t care if you milk five cows or have five steers or if you have 50,000, they’re all important to agriculture and they all have a niche.

“What we focus on is providing a good source of wholesome food for the world.” he said. “We feel if we take care of the people, the animals and the land, they will take care of us.”