Bringing calves back to the farm

Dan Hansen
Now Media Group


The 2016 Cow College sessions that were attended by approximately 50 dairy producers from Outagamie, Shawano and Waupaca counties concluded with a tour of two dairies in south-central Waupaca County who decided to raise their calves onsite after nearly 20 years of sending them to other growers.

The decision to raise the calves at home also required them to build new calf barns, which were the primary focus of the tour.

Breezy Hill Dairy

The first stop was at Breezy Hill Farm, owned and operated by Steve and Scott Bartel and Scott's wife, Stacey, who is in charge of the calves.

The new barn, completed this past July, is 182 feet long, including a 20-foot hay storage area, and 56 feet wide. It features a twin-tube ventilation system, with both fans currently running constantly. The side curtains are thermostatically controlled, with sensors added to close them in case of a driving rain.

The bags in the ventilation system zip together every 30 feet so a bad section can be replaced.

Stacey Bartel said that calves are removed from the cows almost immediately after they're born. 'Shots are given, the calves are put in crates and receive pasteurized colostrum for two meals and then put on whole milk.'

Calves are brought into the calf barn at approximately 6 days of age. 'Calves in each pen vary no more than 15 days in age, to help decrease competition for feed,' she added.

On the day of the tour, the barn housed 43 calves that ranged in age from 7 days to 70 days.

'All calves are fitted with RFID tags to control the amount of feed they receive from our computerized automated feeding system,' Bartel noted. 'We feed whole milk and balancer, the feeder bounces it up, and by the time they get to 10 or 12 days old they should be consuming about 10 liters each day. At each feeding calves can access 2.5 liters, with a maximum of four feedings per day.'

Until they're 21 days old, all calves receive a pro-biotic to help control scours. The computer provides information on calves that aren't consuming their allowed amount of milk. 'The computer really helps because it lets me know almost right away that something is wrong,' Bartel said.

Automated system

Greg Abts of Calf Feeding Solutions said the automated calf feeding system takes in 39-degree pasteurized milk through a hose.

'The machine then warms it instantly as it fills the bowl for the calf to drink, and it adds a balancer that includes more solids to help the calves gain weight, which is especially important this time of year so they don't expend all their energy just trying to keep warm,' he explained.

This system is designed to handle powdered milk, whole milk and a combination of the two.

Abts also stressed that producers using the system need to be aware of potential problems with excess sodium. 'Most of these machines want soft water but you have to be careful because if you get too much sodium in the water your calves won't do well, and will scour up easier.'

'We start weaning calves off the feeder at 35 days and onto starter over a 25-day period,' Bartel said. 'We haven't had any issues with calves losing weight or any other problems since we started doing that.'

Once they leave the calf barn, the animals are house in different barns until they reach breeding age.

Steve Bartel noted that all animals are weighed when they leave the calf barn. 'We're seeing a gain of 2 to 2.5 pounds per day from birth to 120 days.' he said.

'Raising the calves from birth to 6 months, we have about $3.70 a day in them,' he reported, 'but we're expecting to get that back by lowering the average age at calving to 22 months by continuing to get the current high rate of growth. We've also been told to expect up to 2,000 pounds more milk during the first lactation with the feeding program we're on now.'

Jonely Farms

Scott Jonely is the third generation of his family to operate the farm south of Weyauwega, and currently milks over 500 cows.

Jonely's calf barn, though similar in design, features more traditional feeding and different pens. There's also a heifer facility on the farm that houses the weaned calves.

The calf barn, which has been in use for just over six months, includes a wash room, which isn't in use yet and a pasteurizer room that has been in use since Christmas. The exhaust vents in the roof have remained open most all the time this winter.

'Actually the jury will be out for two to three years before we'll know if we get the improvement we're hoping for, but it's starting out really hard,' he acknowledged.

The barn has 72 pens and houses calves from birth to 75 days. 'We try to run them 15 days with no milk at the end. We cut them back at between 45 and 47 days, and take them down to two quarts or less per day,' Jonely said. He is also planning to feed calves three times a day but hasn't started that yet.

'We can tell that calves are doing better on the milk, and we're not using balancer yet,' he said. The weaned calves are usually moved in groups of 12. Now that calves are being raised on the farm, Jonely also expects to increase his bedding storage capacity.

Bringing dairy calves back to the farm is all about increasing milk production, according to Jonely. 'We want to get our daily average up over 100 pounds, and we plan to do that by raising higher producing heifer, because heifers are our future.'