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Planning for success one calf at a time at Ruedinger Farms Inc.

Progressive Dairyman Editor Jenna Hurty Published on 13 January 2015
Ruedinger Farms

Over the past five years, Ruedinger Farms Inc. in Van Dyne, Wisconsin, has increased its herd size by 400 head. They now have 1,400 cows and 210 calves.On average, the farm is milking 1,200 cows each day with one double-11 parlor.

In order to keep everything running smoothly, efficiency, consistency and training are emphasized on the operation.

“We plan for our success,” says Kevin Kaiser, Ruedinger Farms’ manager. “We don’t just try to come up with an idea and say, ‘Tomorrow, that’s what we’re going to do, guys.’ We plan well in advance so that we have success.”

See more of the operation: View the related slideshow .

This is not only true of their milking herd protocols but of their calf care protocols as well. A high-quality milking herd starts with high-quality calves. High-quality calves need to be cared for properly in order to achieve their full potential.

To meet these goals, Kaiser and the farm’s owner, John Ruedinger, have taken the time to develop a system that will meet their needs starting the instant the calf is introduced into the world.

Once the calf is on the ground, its navel is dipped and it is given an oral vaccination to guard against rotavirus. Ruedinger Farm pasteurizes all of their colostrum and also tests it for quality to ensure they only give their calves the best. The pasteurized colostrum is then placed into single-service bags and stored in a refrigerator for future use.

When a calf is born, the colostrum is warmed to the proper temperature and given to the calf within an hour of birth. This often happens within the first half-hour of birth since the machine used to warm the colostrum can bring it to the proper temperature in about 20 minutes.

A colostrum-additive powder is also mixed into the colostrum to protect against E. coli. The single-service bag is attached to the esophageal feeder. This decreases the amount of time spent feeding the calf since no one has to spend time getting them to drink. Using a single-service bag helps with keeping the equipment as clean as possible.

Normally, the calf is then placed in a well-bedded calf hutch. However, during the winter months, it spends its first day in a drying box. After that, the calf is given a calf jacket and it is moved to the hutches.

For the first two weeks of the calf’s life, it receives 2 quarts of pasteurized whole milk three times per day. After that, the calf is given 3 quarts of milk three times per day. Earlier this year, Ruedinger Farms began putting a supplement with natural additives like essential oils in the milk to promote digestive health. Kaiser says the calves have responded well and it has increased their vigor.

dairy calf

Three or four years ago, they were feeding their bull calves unpasteurized whole milk from the hospital cows and their heifer calves top-of-the-line milk replacer. Their bull calves never seemed to be sick and were full of vigor, while their heifer calves routinely came down with scours or some other disease and would struggle to overcome it.

Bloat was also an issue for the heifer calves. The milk replacer they were feeding was simply not giving their heifer calves the nutrition they needed.

Around the same time, they also switched to feeding the calves three times per day instead of two. This was reason number two to switch to feeding pasteurized whole milk to their heifers. A high-plane-nutrition milk replacer was much too expensive to feed.

“There’s basically no milk replacer company that can provide you a more economical choice than whole milk if you feed at high plane nutrition and start feeding three times per day,” says Kaiser. “Milk replacer becomes way, way too expensive.

Milk replacer for 25, 30, 40 years has been sold as the economical choice versus using the milk out of your tank, but we’ve all come to realize that was basically a lie. All of those calves were never, ever going to get enough milk replacer.

You fed to the directions on the bag, but the reality of it was you were weaning 160-pound calves – not 200-pound calves – [that had] health issues and a slow growth rate and things like that. We’ve come to learn so much more about feeding that baby calf from zero to 3 months old now than we ever did before.”

Initially, they fed the calves 3 quarts of milk three times a day since that was what experts recommended. However, they found that prior to two weeks, the calves were unable to handle that much milk. Based on their observations, Kaiser re-wrote the protocol so the calves received 2 quarts three times per day for the first two weeks and 3 quarts after that.

The calves that were fed whole milk three times per day have become healthier, much bigger-framed heifers that were better prepared to take to milking in a freestall. These heifers have also had far fewer calving difficulties. Kaiser attributes this to their larger pelvic structure.

A few years ago, the calves also began to receive a daily dose of electrolytes between their second and third feeding. Curious to know how other operations that raised calves from a sale barn were keeping their calves healthy, Kaiser began calling producers and doing research.

They told him that the calf is going to be sick at some point in those first two weeks of its life. If they are already being given electrolytes, that puts them ahead of the game and will help them survive whatever disease they contract.

Another lesson Kaiser learned from this experience was to feed the calves the electrolytes the same way they were being fed milk. If they’re being fed milk from a bottle, they have no idea what to do with a pail of water until they’re about 3 weeks old. Consequently, the calf will never be as hydrated as it should be.

dairy calves in hutches

Kaiser says using a flavored or colored electrolyte also encourages the calf to drink them. Calves are not particularly interested in drinking a flavorless electrolyte. Even though the flavored electrolytes may not be as high-quality as some of the others, he is not as concerned about that since the calf is drinking it for maintenance, not because it is dehydrated.

At every feeding, calves are monitored to make sure they all finish their entire bottle. If a calf doesn’t, then they check to make sure it drinks its electrolytes. If the calf fails to do this, it is tube-fed electrolytes. In that case, Kaiser says they may opt for one of the higher-quality flavorless electrolyte products.

Cases of E. coli are rare for them. Most of their scours cases are caused by salmonella, crypto or rotavirus. While salmonella can be a challenge for them to overcome, Kaiser says with some electrolytes the calves usually survive the other two just fine.

At 5 months, heifer calves are taken to a heifer-raiser and do not return until three or four weeks prior to calving. The bull calves are kept until weaning at eight weeks. At that point, Kaiser takes them to his farm and raises them until they are 600 pounds. He then sells them to feed lots throughout the Midwest.

Previously, they were trying to raise as many of their heifer calves for production as possible. Now that they are done growing for a while, they have started to be more selective about which heifers they raise. To help with this, they began genomic testing all of their heifer calves two years ago.

Based on the information, they decide which animals to raise, which ones to treat for disease and which ones to cull. This makes it easier to eliminate the bottom third of their animals while pushing their top third to even greater genetic potential.

The first six months sets the stage for the rest of a heifer’s life. The level of care and nutrition she receives during this time directly impacts how she will perform later in life. Ruedinger Farms does not take this lightly. Their protocols and training stress its importance because, as Kaiser pointed out earlier, a major component of success is to plan for success. PD

PHOTOS: High-quality calves need to be cared for properly in order to achieve their full potential. To meet these goals, manager Kevin Kaiser and the farm’s owner, John Ruedinger, have taken the time to develop a system that will meet their needs starting the instant the calf is introduced into the world. Photos by Jenna Hurty.

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