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Calf facilities and a focus on air quality

John Hibma Published on 30 August 2013

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Most nearly everyone I discuss calf raising with will tell me that it’s one of the most challenging jobs on the dairy.

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When things aren’t going well – namely, calves are sick and mortality rates are unacceptably high – calf raising is frustrating, to say the least.

Or just about the time when they think they’ve got it figured out, another bug gets in and calves are sick again. And there’s the continual question of how much does a dairy farmer spend to raise the calves.

It seems as though we’re constantly tweaking the calf programs – different housing and changing milk replacers or calf starters. It’s all done for essentially two reasons: reducing mortality and – dare I say it – reducing labor.

The perfect calf-raising program would have a zero mortality rate and all the heifers in the milking herd at less than 2 years old, taking very little manpower to accomplish it.

There’s been a renewed interest in calf raising in the past decade. It’s all about money. Calves cost money to raise, so the faster and more efficiently they can be raised, the more value they create.

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Dead calves represent a lost opportunity for future revenue. Taking too many extra months to get calves raised, bred, freshened and in the milking herd also represents poor management.

We have a plethora of data showing the importance and benefits of colostrum nutrition at the time of birth.

We now know that neonatal calves that are initially fed to attain average daily gains of 2 pounds per day are more likely to produce more milk compared to herdmates that grow more slowly.

Calf-raising facilities designed for comfort, consistent nutrition, cleanliness and good air quality have much fewer issues with sickness and disease.

In May of 2012, I visited with Mark Cray, who with his family milks about 1,000 cows at their Woody Hill Dairy in Salem, New York. Several years earlier, while looking for additional ways to cut production costs, Cray was introduced to the idea of “group-feeding” neonatal calves.

He remodeled an existing barn and gave it a try. It didn’t take long to realize the new system’s benefits were real – calves were healthier and grew better – and plans were made to build a new neonatal facility completely designed for automated group feeding.

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The new facility was completed and ready for calves in the fall of 2011, but a planned-for forced-air ventilation system was still some months off and Cray soon found that calves were having respiratory issues – most likely due to poor air quality at the floor level of the pens.

Along with calf housing being sized appropriately and kept clean and calves not having to lie in their own manure and urine, it’s now known that a major factor enabling calves to remain healthy and free of illnesses is keeping them in fresh air.

Ammonia concentration in calf housing can be a significant problem – often going undetected since the highest concentrations of ammonia will likely be at ground level where calves lay and humans don’t spend a lot of time.

Ammonia is poisonous and lethal. Even small amounts in the air will scar lungs and lead to pneumonia.

Visiting with Cray again this past July, the ventilation system was in place and performing to expectations. He is extremely pleased with the system, saying that respiratory problems have diminished significantly.

Calves continue to get off to a strong start on the acidified whole milk (from the hospital cows) available ad libitum 24 hours per day. Average consumption of milk is over 2 gallons of milk per calf per day.

Because calves have access to milk all day long, they consume multiple meals per day, which maintains a consistent pH level in the stomach.

Digestive upsets are nearly non-existent due to the consistency of the milk delivery system. The mortality rate is less than 1 percent and average daily gain is consistently at 2 pounds per day.

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Cray, with the help of his veterinarian, Dr. Bob Ceglowski, designed the air ventilation system specifically for the dimensions and capacity of the new calf barn based on research of air quality in calf-raising systems.

The system is designed to bring fresh air in from the outside and the total volume of air in the barn is exchanged multiple times per hour depending on the temperature in the barn.

The continual air exchange keeps air from stagnating and ammonia levels from accumulating in the barn.

The system is not intended to be a “cooling” system with high wind speeds and drafts. During extreme cold weather, side curtains on the outside walls can be lowered to button the barn up tight while the ventilation system continues to keep air circulating.

Notice in the photo that there are two tubes suspended from the rafters running the length of the 140-foot-long barn. Each tube has a fan designed for a different volume of air displacement measured in cubic feet per minute (cfm).

The tube with the larger holes actually has a smaller diameter and is rated for about 6,000 cfm of air flow. The adjacent tube is a larger diameter with more holes of a smaller diameter and powered by a fan rated around 12,000 cfm.

The smaller-diameter tube, with the larger holes, runs during the coldest weather and is designed for six exchanges of air per hour in the barn. When weather conditions begin to warm, the second tube with the smaller and more numerous holes is used to provide about 12 air exchanges per hour.

In the warmest weather, both tubes running together will result in about 18 exchanges of air per hour. The entire system is thermostat-controlled.

Herd-replacement and calf-raising programs represent a sizeable investment for dairy farms, and often making that investment is avoided.

However, dairy farmers should also be aware of the financial implications of not raising calves effectively and efficiently and the costs associated with not keeping calves alive.

Mark Cray comments that the investment in his new facility is worth every dollar. Walking into a barn of healthy calves changes one’s whole attitude about calf raising, and the job is no longer considered the worst job on the dairy. PD

PHOTOS
TOP RIGHT: Dr. Bob Ceglowski designed the air ventilation system specifically for the dimensions and capacity of the new calf barn based on research of air quality in calf-raising systems.

MIDDLE RIGHT: The continual air exchange keeps air from stagnating and ammonia levels from accumulating in the barn.

BOTTOM RIGHT: Ceglowski (left) and Cray stand under the tubes which are designed for a different volume of air displacement measured in cubic feet per minute (cfm). Photos courtesy of John Hibma.

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John Hibma
Nutritionist
Central Connecticut Co-operative Farms Association

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