Barn fire spurs Riesenberg dairy into group housing for calves

Dan Hansen
Farm owner Greg Riesenberg, right, shares some of the benefits of group calf housing with Cow College farm tour participants. Also pictured are Sara Maass-Pate, Farm Business and Production Management instructor at Fox Valley Technical College, and Dr. Jason Marish, the farm’s veterinarian. Some of the sawdust used for bedding the pens can be seen in the background.

SHAWANO – Wisconsin dairy producers are employing a variety of management practices to help calves reach their full genetic potential. Group housing has become an important part of calf management on many farms.

Several benefits of group housing calves were featured during the recent  61st annual Cow College farm tour sponsored by the UW-Extension offices in Waupaca, Shawano, and Outagamie counties, and by the Fox Valley Technical College.

The first stop on the tour was at the Greg Riesenberg farm in southern Shawano County that encompasses 800 acres of owned and rented land, and houses 110 milk cows and its calves in one freestall barn.

“My parents purchased the farm in 1976, and I took over the farm from my dad, Gary, in 2007,” Greg related.

“Dad was originally from this area,” explained Greg. “He grew up just down the road from the farm but moved to Sheboygan Falls where he worked as an industrial arts teacher and met my mother, who also taught school there. 

The family regularly returned to the area to visit relatives. “Sometimes they helped with chores at this farm; one weekend when they came to do chores, the couple who owned the farm asked my parents if they would like to buy the farm, and that’s how my parents ended up owning it,” Greg said.

Fire brings change

The Riesenberg’s first freestall barn was built in 2004, and calf pens were added at the west end of the barn in 2014. “We originally had three rows with 24 individual calf pens, and I liked them,” he said.

However, In August 2020, after they had filled that area of the barn with small bales of straw and sawdust for bedding, a service technician working on a scraper cable, caused a spark that ignited the straw.

“We lost about half the calves, and almost all the pens were melted, Riesenberg recalled. “As we ripped everything out, we were considering what to do next.

After the fire, they used calf hutches, but that didn’t last very long. “Hutches are great but I hate feeding calves in hutches. We knew group calf housing was becoming popular and decided to go in that direction,” he said. 

Now there are eight individual calf pens, with the remaining animals in group pens. “At about 10 days calves go into their first group pen,” Riesenberg said. “Generally, we’re moving them about every 3 weeks depending on their growth. If one calf is lagging behind she’ll stay back.”

Pictured are some of the first calves to move from individual pens to group pens.

While there’s no set date to move them, the new calves push the older ones into the next pen. “Calves are mixed as they go down the line into the next pens,” explained Dr. Jason Marish, the farm’s veterinarian. “As two get pulled out, two go down the row, so they’re constantly getting mixed, but there have been no problems with that.”

Marish also noted that the pens vary somewhat in size, and get a little bigger farther down. “The pens are sized right for the size of the animals Greg has,” he said. “The individual pens in the front work out well for the younger calves because scours generally occurs at 7 to 10 days of age, so that keeps them separated and prevents the scours from spreading to other animals. They’re pretty much past the main scours events when they’re moved to the group pens.”

Doing it over

After more than a year using the current calf pen arrangement, is there anything Riesenberg would do differently?

“I would change a couple of things like putting dividers between each pail, because when the calves get done drinking their milk they will sometimes suck on each other’s ears. But so far, that hasn’t caused any problems,” he said.

“When we installed the headlocks, we welded them in,” Riesenberg added. “We had on the plan to raise the bigger end a couple of inches. Although it’s working fine, I would rather them clamped in because it would be easier to move them up or down. But we haven’t any problem with calves getting hung up.”

Calves don’t lock the headlocks themselves, according to Riesenberg. “I have a milk taxi on wheels that pasteurizes the milk and measures out the amount for each calf, so as I’m filling the pail I just click the headlocks shut.”

Group housing advantages

Feeding and cleaning are the main advantages Riesenberg sees with the group housing.

“I spend about 20 minutes in the morning feeding the calves milk and giving them water, and two high school kids help at night feeding grain and adding bedding. I feel it’s pretty efficient,” he said.

Cleaning is also quicker, according to Riesenberg. “The gate swings forward, the calves are locked up front, then we can go through with the skid steer and clean the pen out quickly.”

The sawdust bedding is also beneficial to pen cleanliness. “When the calves run around, they stir much of the waste into the bedding, and there’s enough room so the pens stay pretty much dry,” said Marish.

Another benefit of group housing is that calves can learn from each other, especially learning to eat. “We’re seeing some increased gain and faster starter intake,” said Marish.

Kimberly Schmidt, Shawano County UW-Extension agriculture educator, also noted that group housing helps calves work out their herd dynamics and social interaction early. “If they learn this when they’re younger they aren’t as likely to be as stressed coming into their first lactation,” she explained.