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As you walk through the calf-raising facilities at Ruedinger Farms, Inc. in Van Dyne, Wis., you notice calf care protocols clearly written and posted in each building. This is just one of the tools the team uses to consistently raise quality replacement heifers.

Ruedinger Farms, Inc. milks 1,500 cows and is owned and operated by John Ruedinger. Four years ago, Ruedinger’s son-in-law, Dave Zappa, joined the farm full-time as a herd manager. With a manufacturing background, Zappa looks at the calf-rearing system with a different perspective. He evaluates each step in the process to identify bottlenecks as well as opportunities to efficiently raise healthy replacement heifers and set up the milking herd for future success.

Starting with the cows

All breeding is done internally by the farm team, and Zappa said he is proud of the 37% pregnancy rate they achieve. This gives the farm the opportunity to use a very aggressive culling strategy and keep only the best heifers as replacements. With an average requirement of 50 heifer calves per month, Zappa uses calves’ genetic potential and health history to identify the calves most likely to become high-performing cows.

Fresh cows remain in the hospital pen for up to 12 hours after calving and are milked once before being moved to the larger fresh cow group. Fresh colostrum is heat-treated in bulk.  Each batch is tested with a Brix refractometer; colostrum with a score of 24% or higher is saved to be fed to newborn heifers.  The farm sells excess colostrum.

The heat-treated colostrum is refrigerated in Perfect Udder® colostrum bags. All newborns receive 1 gallon of colostrum via esophageal feeder as soon as possible after birth.

Efficiently feeding three times per day

About 100 calves are fed pasteurized milk three times a day at Ruedinger Farms.  A year ago, Zappa decided to add Calf Magnify to the pasteurized milk to increase its consistency and nutrient content.  This also allowed him to reduce the total volume of milk fed without sacrificing calf growth.  

Calves start with 2 quarts of milk per feeding and are bumped up to 2.5 quarts at 2 weeks of age.  The farm uses a three-week weaning protocol, gradually decreasing the volume of milk at each feeding.  Calves will remain in the hutches until they are about 80 days of age. 

Calves are introduced to starter right away and receive the same starter until they are 4 months old.  Fresh water is also given to all calves daily (twice a day during periods of warm weather).

Zappa said this program has improved average daily gains and allowed for a smoother transition.

The next moves

Zappa said his team does a couple other things to help the calves transition to new facilities.  When calves move to group pens in a calf barn, buckets of water are placed in the pens until the calves are trained on the automatic waterers. Zappa said raising the feedbunks in front of the slant bars also helps the calves settle into the new environment.

From 5 to 7 months of age, calves move through another heifer barn in groups of 14.  At that point, calves go to a custom heifer raiser and return about three weeks precalving.  Heifers calve in at about 22 months of age.

Identifying opportunities

Zappa continually looks for opportunities to improve. While it may be easy to become overwhelmed by a list of things a farm wants to improve, Zappa said he places his time and focus on the areas that will have the biggest return on investment. Once those goals are met, he looks at the next priority.

Zappa said his first piece of advice to offer is to “raise the right animals.” Heifer-rearing costs are too high to raise animals that will create challenges through adulthood.

Zappa also said that change can be good, and it doesn’t have to be permanent. While learning from past mistakes or challenges is important, what’s true at one point in time won’t necessarily hold true down the road.  Look at the current situation and ask yourself what options are available.

“Don’t be afraid to try new stuff,” he said. “The circumstances are always changing.  If it failed in the past, it doesn’t mean it will fail now.”

This article was originally posted online as part of VitaPlus' Starting Strong - Calf Care series.

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