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Calf raisers share best practices and lessons learned

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 10 March 2014


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This article was #12 of the Top 25 most well-read articles on in 2014. It was published in the March 12, 2014 Extra e-newsletter, then May 7, 2014 print issue.

Three seasoned calf managers – Katie Grinstead, Vir-Clar Farms LLC; Sherry Arnold, Busse’s Barron Acres; and Bernie Tellier, Soaring Eagle Dairy – shared their best calf-raising practices as well as lessons they’ve learned the hard way at the PDPW Calf Care Connection in Cleveland, Wisconsin.

We asked the experts,
Q. What is your best tip for managing calves in cold weather?

Here are excerpts from a letter I send to dairies we work with each year:

• Calves need to be dry.


• Calf jackets. Once calves are dry, the use of a calf jacket will help maintain body heat.

• Clean huts. Calf huts should be routinely cleaned and moved.

• Layers of bedding. Calves should be able to nestle down into the straw to prevent their feet from freezing. The bed pack should not get wet or packed down.

• Calf huts. There is definitely a difference in calf huts. Some huts allow the passive transfer of the sun’s light to heat up the inside of the hut. With so little daylight during the winter, it is imperative to trap as much of the day’s heat as you can. This can be enhanced by facing calf huts south. Blocking doorways can be detrimental to using the day’s sunlight to heat up the inside hut. It also restricts airflow, and this defeats the purpose of the hut.

• Placement of huts. Huts need to have access to the sun, be on elevated ground to prevent flooding and faced away from cold winds.

• Heat lamps. Calves under stress or during extreme cold weather can benefit from a little extra heat in the hut.


• Extra calories. Calves have no body fat. They cannot survive winter temperatures without extra energy.
—Sherry Arnold, Busse’s Barron Acres, Barron, Wisconsin

Keeping calves healthy in winter is more challenging than the rest of the year. The two most critical items I’ve found that impact calf health are bedding and feeding times. When it comes to bedding young calves, providing lots of long straw, which will allow nesting, is necessary. This ensures calves are kept dry and away from frozen packs, which can be high in ammonia. We have also found that keeping our twice-per-day feedings equally spaced at 12 hours apart is critical in the cold winter months. We purposely deliver one of our two feedings at 3 a.m., which can be right in the middle of what usually is the coldest part of each day. Finally, calf jackets are used which help provide some extra warmth.
—Bernie Tellier, Soaring Eagle Dairy, Newton, Wisconsin

There are several tips for managing calves in the winter that I follow. I bed the calves with a lot of straw to start. The hutches are almost half full when I start. I add straw once or twice a week or as much as needed to keep the calves dry. I want the calves to always be able to nest into the straw. This helps to keep them warm. I will put calf jackets on little calves to help keep them warm also. I feed a high level of milk all year around, which is a huge benefit in the winter and summer months. We continue to feed warm water throughout the winter. Water is fed in the morning right after milk and is dumped before it freezes. Weaned calves are offered water again at the afternoon feeding.
—Katie Grinstead, Vir-Clar Farms LLC, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin


Three seasoned calf managers shared their best calf-raising practices as well as lessons they’ve learned the hard way at the PDPW Calf Care Connection in Cleveland, Wisconsin. Their practical advice could make a big difference on your dairy.

Katie Grinstead, Vir-Clar Farms LLC
Katie Grinstead farms with her parents and brother. She’s in charge of calf raising for the 1,450-cow dairy. Heifers are raised until 5 months old and bull calves for 10 weeks. Calves are kept in outdoor hutches for eight weeks before moving into a three-sided building. When on milk, the calves are fed pasteurized colostrum and whole milk.

Best practices
1. If the forecast calls for rain or snow, they set the water pail inside the grain pail to keep the starter dry. This has reduced the amount of feed that needs to be discarded. Grinstead noted her and her employees don’t do this if the calf is weaned or in the process of being weaned.

2. They place pink pails in front of small calves and twins as a quick signal to the feeder those calves get less milk. A pail of a different color is used with larger calves.

3. After dipping a newborn calf’s navel, the employee places the iodine cup, gloves and iodine in the hutch where the next newborn calf will go to serve as a reminder that task needs to be done upon entry.

4. During cold weather, the screen fencing is pushed tight to the hutch for new calves to keep them out of the harsh elements.

Lessons learned

1. Train, train and retrain new employees and existing employees, regardless of previous experience. Grinstead said it is important to do your due diligence to make sure employees are following protocols.

2. “I don’t think you can clean enough when raising calves,” she said. As they built the calf facility on their farm, they included a wash bay for pressure washing hutches.

3. Feed more milk. They feed three quarts at the second feeding, four quarts at 2 weeks old, six quarts at 4 weeks old. When calves reach 6 weeks, they are only fed once a day. They are weaned at 7 weeks and moved from the hutches at 8 weeks. In cold weather they’ll add a night feeding.

Sherry Arnold, Busse’s Barron Acres

Sherry Arnold raises calves from birth to 5 months old. They pick up calves daily using a custom calf trailer they designed. The calves come from 12 different farms, up to 2.5 hours away. Last year they raised 5,200 calves.

Best practices
1. Build a team for information and support. “Take the team approach,” Arnold said. “Don’t try to go at it alone.”

2. PI test every calf. With 12 sources, Arnold said she needed to know every calf on the farm is free of BVD.

3. Establish your farm’s individual protocols. “Figure out what works for you and communicate those protocols monthly with a staff meeting,” she said.

Lessons learned
1. Biosecurity is important. All calves need to be isolated coming into the facility. Using outdoor hutches helps protect against the spread of major respiratory illnesses. Always clean and sanitize hutches and equipment.

2. Give extra care in cold weather. Calves are given a jacket and a deep layer of straw bedding to help them stay warm. Hutches are positioned to the south to capitalize on the sun’s power. They provide additional calories through a fat supplement and incorporate an early morning feeding (at 1:30 a.m.) to help the calves in the coldest part of the day. Arnold has also learned she needs a place for at-risk calves. She has 15 ICU hutches out of the cold.

3. Proper equipment and facilities are necessary. They converted their old dairy freestall barn to hold calves. It allows for center feeding for the group pens that hold 10 to 20 weaned calves. They also have a mixing shed with a commercial dishwasher, which is a big help in cleaning and sanitizing.

Bernie Tellier, Soaring Eagle Dairy

Soaring Eagle built its calf facilities six years ago when it decided to raise its own wet calves. Calf Manager Bernie Tellier explained they have 120 indoor hutches.

Calves are removed from their dam and fed one gallon of good colostrum within one hour of birth. They are then feed pasteurized waste milk at a rate of three quarts twice a day until 3 weeks old via bottle. They are switched to pail feeding at four quarts per day until weaning at 7 weeks old.

Weaned calves are moved to a group-housing barn and kept in groups of eight, 16 and 32 calves, as they grow older. In this barn they are fed the same starter as in the hutches until transitioned to a TMR. At 5 months old the calves are moved to a facility in Colorado.

Best practices
1. Look at calves individually.

2. Meet with the veterinarian on a regular basis (weekly) and bring in additional experts when necessary.

3. Good communication with employees helps maintain a solid workforce.

4. Never stop improving. Tellier said they are always trying new things from keeping calves on the bottle longer to changing the feeding times. They now feed at 3 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Lessons learned
1. Good drainage under the hutches helps to prevent disease and keep the calves dry. The wet calf barn originally had a concrete floor. They decided to remove the concrete and have noticed a significant reduction in bedding required.

2. Early detection and treatment of calves.

3. “You can’t be too fussy with the quality of starter,” Tellier said. “If it’s not what you want, call them up.” PD

Sherry Arnold, left, Katie Grinstead, Bernie Tellier.