Vita Plus Farm School provides practical insight to calf raising

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer

KEWAUNEE - Standing among a group of 11 young calves, Alice Stafne concentrated on moving the animals to the front of the enclosure in the bed pack barn and then allowing them to return one by one to the back of the pen.

Livestock nutrition consultant Alice Stafne works a pen of calves during a hands-on heifer handling exercise at Vita Plus Farm School at Pagel's Ponderosa Calf Ranch on June 19.

The task was a hands on exercise during Vita Plus' Farm School held at Pagel's Ponderosa Calf Ranch designed to help newly relocated calves adapt to their new housing environment and maintain their feed consumption.

The newly hired livestock nutrition consultant was eager to bring back new ideas for her clients back home.

"I'm also looking to share strategies that don't cost a lot because money is pretty tight out there," Stafne said.

The Farm School event was part of the 2018 Vita Plus Calf Summit that allowed calf raisers, heifer managers, feed consultants and dairymen to tour a progressive calf operation located just two miles away from the state's largest single family-owned dairy. The Pagel family and employees as well as Vita Plus staff shared management techniques and skills—and lessons learned from experience—on improving calf programs on operations back home.

Established in 1946, Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy milks 5,400 cows and raises approximately 3,300 young calves at the calf ranch down the road. About 2,150 older heifers are raised on the farm's heifer site in Coleman, WI.

From the start

The Pagel's begin planning for healthy calves long before they arrive by making sure that dry cows are fed a transition diet in the days leading up to calving  freshening to prepare them for lactation.

As the cow nears birth, she is moved from her holding pen to the maternity area where she is supervised around the clock by two full-time employees. 

An employee in the dry cow barn at Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy wipes down a newborn calf.

Soon after the calf is born, it is moved into the processing area where the calf is dried, weights and other data is recorded, ear tags inserted, naval dipped and then placed into an individual hutch with a thick bedding of straw. The calf is kept warm by a heat lamp above and heated floor below. Calves born in the winter time wear jackets for the first three weeks of their lives.

The cow is milk about 30-45 minutes after delivery and colostrum is fed to the newborn calf. Newborn calves are picked up twice a day from the farm and transported to the calf ranch. Herdsman Chris Szydel says about 600 calves are born on the farm each month.

Back at the ranch

At the calf ranch, calves are housed in barns in their own individual pens. Dairy Manager J.J. Pagel says PVC pipes running the length of each barn provide tunnel ventilation as a way to circulate air, keeping the calves cool and comfortable.

Pagel points out that the family has tweaked the design of the calf barns over the years. 

"If you noticed, some of the older barns have a three foot side wall which doesn't allows for a lot of back ventilation," he said. "We finally figured a few things out along the way."

Curtains on the barns are also used to adjust the ventilation and temperature. 

Sick calves or those needing a little TLC are kept in a small enclosed area which Pagel calls the NICU.

Dairy Operations Manager J.J. Pagel (right) and calf manager Shawn Miller discuss ventilation and air flow inside one of many calf barns at Pagel's Ponderosa Calf Ranch in Kewaunee.

"Calves that come in here are not down and out, but animals that might benefit from a day or two where we can help them out," he said.

He stressed that antibiotics are used as a last resort.

"We firmly believe in trying to let the calf work its way through an illness. We have very few calves under the age of 3 weeks that see antibiotics," Pagel said. "We do, however, use electrolytes if a calf is scouring."

To help prevent the spread of disease and illness, employees break down the polymer, modular calf pens and transport them to a wash bay where they are pressure washed and sanitized before being reassembled.

While individual pens may seem labor intensive to some, calf manager Shawn Miller says group housing and feeders have challenges as well.

"We're a large dairy and have a lot of calves moving through here, and if we ever got a bad bug it could do a lot of damage in here in a hurry," Miller said. "At least with this system we could try to contain it or shut it off as best that we can."

Pagel says dependable employees make the choice easy.

"If we didn't have a good group of workers, I'd say maybe consider robots," Pagel said, "but Shawn and his crew do a good job and make this easy."

Feeding time

Calves are trained to drink milk out of a pail at birth. Employees at the calf ranch follow a milk feeding protocol that changes as the calves age. They are fed a little over 2 quarts of milk twice a day which is gradually increased to 3 quarts of milk twice a day. Calves also have access to fresh pails of water.

Employees ready one of two milk carts for the afternoon feeding.

In order to feed several barns filled with young calves quickly and efficiently, employees fill large tanks full of pasteurized milk. The tanks are mounted on two feed carts that are driven into the calf barns. An automated feeding system is used to feed the calves from a cart as well.

"This way we can feed one calf milk every six seconds," Miller said.

Employees make note of calves that don't consume all their milk and use color coded pails to alert the next shift. Tags and bands are also placed on pend to help staff communicated with one another regarding health issues, behavioral observations or stages of weaning.

Time to move

Miller says weaning begins around 42 days and milk is reduced to one feeding per day. Calves are then moved to bed pack barns around 64 to 68 days of age.  

Because the herd is crossbred between Holsteins and Jerseys, Pagel says animals may vary in size. Before placing calves into group pens in the bed pack barn, employees size up the calves making sure the sizes are consistent.

At this time, calves are eating a diet of 13.8% solids, 29.2% protein and 25.7% fat. Pagel estimates that calves are reaching an average daily gain of 1.6 to 1.7 lb. by the time they're ready to move on to the freestall barns at the age of 5 months.

The Pagel family upgraded calf barns with open air walls to provide better ventilation for calves.

To keep the calves and heifers comfortable, bed packs at the calf ranch are also bedded with bio solids twice a week. The pens are also scraped once a day to prevent manure build up and to keep the calves clean. 

At the age of 11 months, heifers are moved to the heifer facility in Coleman, WI, 71 miles away and returned when they are carrying calves.


Pagel says that not all calves find their way onto the 72 stall rotary milking parlor at the dairy.

"We're fortunate that we have the other dairy that's looking for other animals," Pagel said, referring to the farm's second operation, High Plains Ponderosa, winter in Kansas, that milks over 4,500 cows. "So far we've been able to raise what we need for ourselves and send the rest down the line to them."

Taking mental notes

Kayle Oxendale, Vita Plus Dairy Specialist from western Ohio says all calf raisers face different challenges whether its health issues, new buildings or improving management techniques.

"It's hard for some of our producers to get off the farm and make it all the way up to Wisconsin. If they're doing something new, cool and exciting up here, we can take it back and tell some of our producers about it," Oxendale said.

A participant in the Vita Plus Farm School checks out a row of hutches containing newborn calves at Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy.

Nutrition consultants Kyle and Rebekah Matthews traveled from Minnesota to attend the Summit. While big dairies in southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin top out around 2500 to 3000 cows, the couple was interested in seeing how a truly large dairy operation functions.

"It's always kind of eye-opening to see how other people run their dairies and the different things they do to be successful," Kyle Matthews said. "Hopefully we can bring back some ideas to implement on the farms back home."

Matthews said visiting larger dairies is good exposure for him.

"These larger dairies are probably what the industry will become in the future and I'm hoping to make a career out of this so I need to learn how to adapt myself."