Raising calves its own industry

Now Media Group

The Dairy Calf and Heifer Growers Association had its origin as the Professional Dairy Heifer Growers Association in 1996. Its purpose was to help educate and connect custom calf and heifer raisers with the help of dairy producers.

The organization changed its name to better represent the changing membership demographics, which now is a balance between custom raisers and dairy producers. The DCHA emphasizes the health, management and economics of raising dairy calves and heifers to build a better producing adult dairy animal.

Madison is home

After many years of moving their annual conference to different sites across the dairy world, the association seems to have settled on Madison as a permanent site. The 2015 and 2016 gatherings were held there with next year's event already scheduled for the Marriot in Middleton.

It's logical, a DCHA officer said: Wisconsin has the dairy cattle and offers endless possibilities for dairy farm tours.

From across the dairy world

Over 500 dairy folks from 27 states and 10 countries made their way to Madison for the April 11-13 DCHA conference that began with tours of Rosy-Lane Holsteins in Watertown (calves raised at home and some by a custom grower) and Nehls Bros. Dairy in Juneau (250 calf hutches plus growing facilities). Both dairies are noted for their very successful dairy herd and young stock management.

The majority of the conference time offered seminars on subjects ranging from animal management to employee relations to animal welfare and everything in-between. Of course and as always, talking with each other and with the speakers is where much of the learning is done.

Major changes have taken place in calf and heifer raising in recent years, and I suspect many dairy producers — those not in the mega dairy category — are fairly unknowing about what is going on in the calf-raising industry.

I first encountered big-time custom calf raising decades ago (in the 70s) in California. The "calf lady" (a sort of generic term) picked up newborn calves daily at the corral-type dairies in the then dairy cow capital of the world: Chino, California. They were taken to a calf ranch nearby with 20,000 calves where they were grown to an older age. They then went to another grower until just prior to calving when they came back home.

None of the Chino dairies had facilities to raise calves and heifers, so they used custom calf raisers. Forty years later, this system is being used nationwide.

13,000 calves

I sat next to Jamie Franken of City View Farms, Sutherland, Iowa, at a DCHA lunch and learned more about custom calf raising. His parents Ken and Vickie (longtime secretary/treasurer of DCHA) had milked cows in Iowa until the mid-80s when their barn burned, and they turned to custom raising heifers.

"We began to house calves for livestock dealers, mostly on a short-term basis," Jamie said. "By the mid 90s, we were housing calves for dairy producers. We now have calves from Iowa, Wisconsin, New York and Indiana — about 13,000 animals at two locations in Iowa: Sioux Center (2,000) and Sutherland (11,000).

"We don't mix different owners' cattle," added Kevin Vander Stoep, herdsman. "Thus, we need about 120 calves per farm per month. The dairies that send heifers to us range from 1,500 to 7,000 head. Some calves come here straight out of the huts, and some arrive weighing 700 pounds. Each dairy is different."

Most of their heifers at City View are grown outdoors on a bedded pack.

"Our customers prefer having their heifers raised outside," Franken said. "They feel their heifers are hardier and ready to go when they return to the dairy."

"Do you have any Wisconsin calves at City View," I asked?

"Yes, about 8,000 head," Jamie responded. "We have raised calves from Wisconsin for a long time."

8,000 calves

Lane Sollenberger of Newburg, Pennsylvania, is president of the DCHA and general manager of Dream Farms, a contract heifer raiser with 8,000 calves in five locations.

Originally, this farm was one of four large-scale heifer raising facilities built by the long-gone Agway Cooperative in the northeast, Sollenberger explained. The new owners purchased the farm in 2003, and Dream Farms began operations shortly thereafter.

"We get calves from one to 10 days old and keep them until 60 days pre-fresh," he said. "We charge a daily fee."


Many dairies have moved to custom heifer raising, at their own facilities hundreds of miles and several states away or to contract raisers in the west or locally.

"Why?" was my question.

"It's all about the change in the scale of dairy farms," Sollenberger said. "As dairies got bigger, calf raising became more of a challenge. No longer could the farm wife take care of the calves as herds grew and many wives got off-farm jobs and didn't have time. And, often the facilities often weren't adequate to raise big numbers of calves. Besides, the farm's main income source was milk, and the producer couldn't give adequate time and care to the calves."

Animal units

Don't forget that many farms are concerned with livestock units, Sollenberger added. Many environmental rules are based on animal units, so many farmers move the calves and heifers off the farm to be able to milk more cows.

Note: A cow is considered one livestock unit, a calf under 1 year old is 0.4 unit, a 1- to 2-year old heifer is 0.7 unit and a 2-year-old heifer is 0.8 unit. Thus, less nonmilking animals means more cows can be located on the farm.

Other reasons

There is a shortage of professional calf managers available to dairies, while the specialized, high-volume custom raisers can get and train skilled managers. It's also true that many dairy producers see advantages to sending calves west where a milder climate, available feed and vacant beef feedlots can be used.

Some farmers and nonfarmers will see such big numbers of calves being raised in one place as bad —for many reasons. One reason as expressed by a friend was "that's just too big."

"Maybe so," and this is a natural emotional response, and it is hard to believe you can raise thousands of calves in one place. However, the death loses are very small, and the care is great with the best of feed, veterinary care and housing conditions. Besides, the custom grower doesn't stay in business very long if things aren't done right.

Again, like it or not, this is about change and will grow as smaller dairy herds get involved. Of course, we've had custom calf growers in Wisconsin for decades raising dozens or hundreds of calves, and even the smaller dairy herds have built new calf facilities, upgraded their management skills and attend the DCHA conference.

My constant thought while at the event was how calf raising has changed from my days on the farm. And that's good, especially for the calves..

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at .