Landmark Services Cooperative Board of Directors member John Doerfer has experimented with several calf management strategies over the years. He grew up feeding calves in outdoor hutches, spent several years raising calves in a facility with individual calf stalls and then utilized a custom calf grower to manage his heifer calves.
After trying several calf raising options, this Verona, Wis., dairy producer has found an automated calf feeding system to provide the greatest efficiency and productivity. John credits team cooperation and planning – much like that of the Landmark team – to the current success of his dairy calves.
Today, John manages the 700-cow, 4,200-acre operation with his brother, Gary, and his father, Richard, along with Scott Dahlk, their herdsman for the past 11 years. Over the years, the team has looked for the most efficient way to raise calves. They found that hand-feeding the large amount of calves was labor intensive and missed being able to maintain their own productivity through custom calf raising.
After much research, the Doerfers opted to build a new calf facility in the summer of 2012. During the process, the producers looked to industry experts – including the Landmark team – for advice on equipment selection, ventilation options and calf nutrition programs.
John Binversie of Landmark Animal Nutrition was a key contact during the process.
“We purchase all of our proteins for the herd and calf grains through Landmark, so we talked with John [Binversie] about the feeds we’d be feeding and how they’d work with the system we had in mind,” John Doerfer says. “With calves being born every day, our calves are a big investment, so we made sure to have the right feeding program in place.”
The feeding advice from Landmark was put to use as the Doerfers began building their 60-by-156-foot new calf facility complete with automated calf feeders, ventilation tubes and adjustable curtains for adequate temperature control. Calves were added to the facility in July with a smooth transition to the new system.
“The system is working better than we could imagine,” Doerfer says, citing good growth rates and reduced labor required.
Today, newborn calves are fed colostrum within the first few hours of life and supplemented with Calf Guard and Inforce 3. Calves are then placed in individual Calf-Tel calf hutches for their first three days of life with heat lamps placed above the hutch if needed.
At day three, calves are moved into the group feeding system in groups of 25. Calves remain in these groups through their growing stage to prevent pecking issues.
The biggest advantage to the new system, Doerfer says, was the addition of two DairyFeed automated calf feeders from GEA Farm Technologies. With the automated calf feeders, calves enter one of four calf feeding stations where they consume milk replacer. A computer reads each calf’s individual RFID eartag to determine the amount of milk replacer the calf is allotted.
The system then heats water to 102 degrees Fahrenheit, mixes and dispenses milk replacer based on the calf’s individual needs. The system is set so levels of milk replacer are increased automatically for each calf over time.
Calves enter the feeding station up to five times each day until their individual allotment has been consumed. At the maximum feeding level, each calf consumes 2.5 gallons (or 9 liters) of milk replacer per day. By day 44, milk replacer levels begin to drop so a smooth weaning transition can occur at day 54.
After each calf consumes its feeding, water is circulated through the system to rinse out milk replacer and then it is fed to the calf. Doerfer notes that this water has prevented calves from suckling in the group.
Calf consumption levels and the speed that calves consume their milk replacer are recorded through a computer system in an adjacent room. The Doerfers and their team of employees monitor milk replacer levels and trends to determine growth rates and calf performance.
“All the calves feed steadily throughout the day, so it’s pretty obvious when a calf isn’t feeling well,” John says. “If the computer shows a calf is off milk, we are able to look for ways to solve the problem and get the calf back on track.”
So far, he says that scours and health issues have been minimal with the new system.
When it comes to milk versus milk replacer, the farm first considered feeding pasteurized milk from treated cows.
“We realized quickly that we didn’t have enough treated milk to feed all of the calves,” Doerfer says. “We’re in the business to sell milk, so the quality milk that we have is marketed. We went with a Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products milk replacer program (Cow’s Match ColdFront and Cow’s Match WarmFront based on season) and the calves have really done well on it.”
Other than computer maintenance and adding milk replacer powder to the system twice daily, Doerfer says the automated calf feeding system is fairly self-sufficient.
“The feeder self-cleans three times per day and we change the nipples twice a day to sanitize them. Feeding calves this way is more management than manual labor and that’s worked well for us,” he says.
Ampli-Calf starter feed is fed to the calves twice per day to ensure that feed is always available, fresh straw is added every other day and the pens are cleaned weekly, allowing calf managers to observe calves for health issues.
“When compared to hand-feeding, this system requires about one-half to one-third the labor,” Doerfer estimates. “We’re really happy with the system. We’ve put about 300 calves through it since July and they’ve grown great and transitioned well through weaning.”
“Our goal has always been to double the calf’s weight from birth to weaning – and it required a lot more management to reach that goal before,” he adds. “Today, we’re more than doubling birth weights before 54 days of age and we’re able to track growth rates. We’re really happy with the system.”