Wichman Farms’ new calf barn features a unique automated feeding system

Dan Hansen
Wichmans have been housing calves in the new barn with an automated feeding system since the fall of 2019.

APPLETON – Wichman Farms Inc. is a multi-generational dairy operation well known for employing cutting-edge technology.

Hundreds of people from throughout the U.S. and several foreign countries have visited the farm in eastern Outagamie County since 2013 when the family moved its Holstein herd from a tie-stall barn to a state-of-the-art 240-cow freestall barn that featured four Lely Astronaut Robotic Milking units.

The farm’s automated milking system was the first stop on the Cow College farm tour four years ago, and was part of this year’s virtual tour, highlighting its state-of-the-art automated calf feeding system.

Sara Maass-Pate, agricultural educator with Fox Valley Technical College, led the virtual tour, with information provided by Brad Wichman of Wichman Farms and Minnie Ward of CalfStar, the company that installed the calf-feeding system.

In the fall of 2019, calves were moved into the new barn that’s divided into two main sections, a smaller one that houses younger calves and the larger part for older, larger animals.

Calf comfort

The new calf barn was designed to provide maximum comfort for the calves, with about 40 square feet of space per calf, according to Wichman. “Ventilation was the main selling point for us,” he stressed. “We feel it is important to put more money into providing clean, fresh air, so we can raise healthy calves.”

The new calf barn was designed to provide maximum comfort for the calves, with about 40 square feet of space per calf.

A ventilation tube operates year-round, pulling in fresh air and exhausting any stale air which helps provide a healthy environment. There are no curtains in the barn, but sidewalls keep keep direct sunlight off the animals except during winter when the sun is at a lower angle and the calves can benefit from the additional solar heat.

“We bed the pens about once a week with straw and we also use some chopped soybean stalks,” said Wichman. “On the bigger side we might bed twice a week depending on how many larger calves are there. The bigger side might get cleaned out more because we have bigger calves in there. We might clean once or twice a month.” 

From cow to calf

With the automated feeding system, milk goes from the cows to the calves without anyone ever handling it.

According to Ward, the CalfStar system collects, pasteurizes and transports the milk through an underground pipe to the new calf barn.

“Milk from the robots goes into a cooling chamber, called the “milk jug,” which cools the milk to approximately 39 degrees F,” she explained. “When milk is called for, the system automatically starts pasteurizing, and sends milk through to the new calf barn.”

The smaller half of the barn features two automated stalls that will feed up to 50 calves easily. 

“Once the milk is pasteurized, it is stored in the “milk jug” which keeps the milk cool until a calf comes into the stall,” Ward said. “The system reads each tag and delivers a ration that has been programmed for each calf; it also warms the milk for the calf.”

After being fed its pre-programmed ration, and the calf backs out there’s a three second delay, and the outside of nipple gets sprayed, so there is no contamination left on that nipple, so there can be no calf-to-calf contamination from the nipple.

“We’re really concerned about bacteria and contamination,” stressed Ward. "At Wichman Farms they’ve done a wonderful job in controlling that.” The stall cleaning process includes a rinse, detergent application, another rinse, an acid and a final rinse before the water enters the stall drain.

With the automated feeding system, milk goes from the cows to the calves without anyone ever handling it.

Starting with a bottle

“We encourage producers to start feeding calves with a bottle in smaller temporary pens,” said Ward. “When the calf can drink from a bottle for three consecutive feedings without being coached, it’s ready to come to the feeder.” 

Calves are generally kept in the smaller individual pens for about 7 days before they’re allowed into the full pen where they can use the automated calf feeder. Then the smaller pens will be removed so calves can access the complete area on that side of the barn.

Ward noted that the nipple at the feeding pivots so a calf can bump the nipple just as if it were getting milk from its mother. “Calves will generally come up to feed 4 to 5 times a day,” she said. The calves can then go back into the full pen, play, eat grain and do what they do best – grow!”

Heat coming off the “milk jug” is utilized in the barn’s in-floor heating system. “There’s also a water outlet for a hose that can be used to wash the outside of the unit if needed,” Ward added.

Calf movement

Calves are kept in smaller, individual pens for 5 to 7 days, according to Wichman. 

“When we feel they’re ready for the calf feeder, we dehorn and tag them. They also have free choice of grain and hay. We like to try keeping 15 to 18 calves in the smaller side; they seem to do better at that number because there’s less competition for the nipple,” he said.

Calves stay in the full pen for about 30 days, and then are transferred to the other side of the barn that is somewhat larger. “The other side of the barn will generally house more calves because many of the calves there are already weaned. Over there, they get weaned at 75 days; it’s at about day 45 or 50 when we start weaning off slowly.” Wichman said.

“Once calves reach 90-100 days of age, we move them out into our old calf barn that has been converted into free stalls, which is where they get introduced to freestalls,” he explained.

The farm also partners with Fox Valley Technical College. “Students from the nutrition and ration balancing classes come out and weigh calves every few weeks to generate rate-of-gain data from our animals. I provide the animals’ birth weights, then the students track their growth."

Before deciding on the final plan for the building, the Wichmans visited a couple of other calf barns, but most of the research was conducted online. “We’re happy with the building and seeing an improvement in calf health, but could use a little more storage space,” he said.

One of the biggest labor saving advantages of the new barn is pen cleaning. “Before we had to use pitchforks, now we can clean quickly with a skid steer loader,” Wichman said.