Automatic feeding and housing foundations of new calf program
Rearing calves in individual hutches was part of the game plan when the Heims family—Lloyd, Joyce and their sons, Jeremy and Scott—decided to bring the youngstock for their 600-cow dairy near Algoma, Wis., back home after 19 years of using a custom heifer raiser.
A last-minute conversation with their equipment dealer convinced them to ditch the individual hutch concept in favor of building a new, compact, group housing facility featuring automatic calf-feeding units.
"We were all set to place the order for the hutches," says Jeremy, who heads up the calf program at the dairy. "But the more the dealer told us about this system from German manufacturer Holm and Laue, the more it appealed to us."
The potential for labor savings topped the list. The workforce at Heims’ consists of a handful of family members plus five non-family employees.
Along with the 600-cow dairy, they farm 1,300 acres and do all of their own repair work. "Time is definitely at a premium around here," Jeremy says.
The calf facility’s small footprint also appealed to the Heims. Total space measures 40'x70'. There’s room enough for four gated, roofed pens with total housing for up to 75 calves, ages one to 65 days old; four igloo-shaped group calving huts and a center feed alley separating the pens. There’s also a small calf room with a pasteurizer for the waste milk fed to the calves, a 100-gal. milk tank and three automatic feeding stalls.
"Hutches for that many calves would have taken a lot more room," Jeremy says. "With our existing layout, it would have meant putting the calves out in back of the barn.
"But I wanted them right up front, in an area where people would be walking by all the time and could keep a close eye on them. The way we see it, the calves are the most important animals on our dairy. They represent our future," he adds.
The price tag of the entire facility was around $90,000. Included were the pens, the group calf huts, calf room, pasteurizer and feeding equipment, and calf jackets for the cold-weather months.
Once calves reach 16 days of age, they’re moved into a pen with two automatic feeders, says Jeremy Heims.
"It was a case of sticker shock, at first," Jeremy says. "But when we took a look at everything that would be needed with individual hutches—the hutches themselves, the wire panels, bottles, etc.—we realized that was a pretty big cash outlay, too."
In the Heims’ setup, calves that are one to 15 days of age are sorted into a pen with a group hut and serviced by one automatic feeder. Typically, there are around 15 calves in the pen. The feeder is programmed so that each calf can drink up to 7.5 liters of pasteurized waste milk each day, metered out in four separate feeding periods.
Jeremy spends a couple of days training each calf to use the feeder.
"It’s mostly a matter of just leading them up to it and showing them where the nipple on the feeder is. Some calves catch on in just a couple of visits. For other calves, it might take a few days."
At 16 days old, the calves are moved to the second pen, which holds 35 calves. The second pen features two group huts serviced by two automatic feeders. The amount of milk per calf is upped to 10 liters per day, also delivered in four separate feeding periods.
The automatic feeders track drinking amounts, number and frequency of visits to the feeder each day, and drinking speed. "It gives you a lot of data to work with," Jeremy says. "If you see something that’s out of line, you can get right on it."
Automatic feeders are simply a tool, not a replacement for good management. "People think you can just put the calves in there, show them how to use the feeder and then forget about them. But you still have to put the time in and closely monitor what’s going on with each calf. It’s just that you’re not standing there holding a bottle for them," Jeremy says.
Heims’ calves are weaned at 56 days. They stay in the second pen for another two to three weeks so Jeremy can closely monitor their transition to a grain and dry hay diet. After that, they’re moved to a bedded pack housing on another part of the farm.
Fitting the calf facility into the dairy’s overall management scheme required some innovative thinking on the Heims’ part. To efficiently get waste milk from the parlor to the calf facility, they built an 80-gal. stainless tank that can easily be transported between the two buildings with a skid steer. Total time involved is about 30 minutes per day.
"If we had individual hutches, we’d easily be spending that much time feeding and cleaning bottles or pails," Jeremy says.
At the calf room, the waste milk is pumped out of the tank via two hoses. The milk travels through a plate cooler and filter sock to the pasteurizer, where it’s cooled down to 39°F in less than an hour, then stored in a tank until it’s needed for the automatic feeding stations.
The Heims also modified the group calf huts by placing them on 2'-high risers. "There just wasn’t the air quality in the hutches that we wanted," Jeremy says. "In Germany, they leave the huts on the ground. They don’t think they need more air movement, but they typically only have 12 calves in a hutch. We’ll have 16 or more."
The Heims began using the new facility in November 2012. So far, they’ve been mostly happy with their decisions to bring calf-rearing chores in-house.
Death losses in the first year were less than 5%. That’s higher than Jeremy wants to see it, but he believes that a few changes in the dairy’s colostrum management program—such as pasteurizing colostrum—should improve that number and overall calf performance.
"If you don’t have a scour problem in that first week, the calves will just cruise," he says.
Average daily gain for Heims’ calves is 1.9 lb. per calf per day. That’s up slightly from the 1.8 lb. per calf per day registered by the Heims’ custom calf raiser but not yet at the 2.2 lb. level Jeremy believes is possible.
"We’re still fine-tuning," he says. "But we feel like we’re getting closer to where we want to be all the time."