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Crawley dairy shares secrets to keeping calves healthy

Progressive Dairyman Editor Jenna Hurty-Person Published on 16 November 2016
dairy calf

Holsteins, Jerseys and Milking Shorthorns? When Don Crawley came back to Crawley’s Valley View Farms after World War II, the farm had mostly Jerseys, which were great as milk cows. However, he wanted a milk cow where the bull calf and cull cow were worth more, so he became interested in Milking Shorthorns.

Around 1950, he finally bought a few, and they’ve been a staple at the dairy ever since.

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Today the 300-head dairy, located in Gravette, Arkansas, is owned by his son Tim and Tim’s wife, Nikki. They continue to breed Milking Shorthorns; however, as the dairy grew, they also incorporated some Holstein cows into the herd as well. Their current herd is about one-third Holstein, one-third Milking Shorthorn and one-third crossbred with a handful of Jerseys still sprinkled in.

At any given time, Nikki says they have 45 to 50 wet heifer calves, which they raise in individual hutches. From day one, she monitors them closely, making sure the calves are performing and getting the necessary care and attention. At birth, the calf receives probiotics and 1 gallon of high-quality colostrum preferably from its dam; however, she keeps high-quality frozen colostrum on hand in case the dam doesn’t give enough colostrum or it’s poor quality. All colostrum is tested for quality using a colostrometer.

For feedings two through four, the calf continues to receive its dam’s milk, which still contains valuable antibodies for the first few days. In general, the dairy only has one newborn calf per day, which is why they match the calf to its dam. However, if they have multiple calves born at once, they will pool the milk for feedings two through four. Nikki says that is something that’s fairly easy for them to do, but it has really had a positive impact on calf health. In fact, she says they typically only lose one or two calves per year, and the last calf they lost was due to an underdeveloped digestive tract.

calf hutches

At feeding five, Nikki switches the calf over to milk replacer that she fortifies with probiotics. Until 11 days old, calves receive 2 quarts two times per day from a bottle. On day 11, they switch to a bucket and receive 2.5 quarts twice a day, and then the following Monday they up their allotment to 3 quarts per feeding.

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Tim says until they started doing the probiotics two years ago, almost every calf scoured at 7 or 8 days old. After adding the probiotics at birth and in the milk replacer, he says they’ve seen a drastic drop in the number of scouring calves. Nikki is also pleased with the outcome. The way she sees it, they’re either going to spend the money up front with probiotics or they’re going to spend it later on treating a sick calf, so why not take the extra preventative step and have a healthier calf?

To help acclimate calves to the bucket and encourage grain intake, Nikki offers the calves grain and water on day 3. While they don’t drink or eat much, she says it gets them familiar with it so when they start putting the milk in a bucket on day 11, calves typically take to the buckets without issue.

From then on, calves receive fresh water and grain following each milk feeding except during the summer when the water buckets are filled more frequently to keep up with demand.

At seven weeks, calves drop from two feedings per day to one, and by week eight, they are completely weaned. To help make this transition easier in the winter, Nikki feeds any calves not receiving milk a bucket of warm water, which she says they typically drink right away. A couple of weeks after they’re weaned, they’re put in groups of four to six and moved to mega hutches.

In the summer, heat stress can be challenging for the calves. It is not uncommon for them to have highs over 100ºF, or sometimes even 105ºF, with high humidity and little to no airflow. To help with that, the Crawleys put shades over the hutches and place large blocks under the backs of the hutches to increase airflow in the hutch. The shades stay up until the end of September, and Tim says they seem to help keep the calves at least a little bit cooler. If necessary, Nikki also has an air-conditioned vet room where she can put one or two calves in a pen to give them some relief from the heat and help them cool down.

In the winter, Nikki puts calf jackets on the calves for the first few weeks; however, she says she has to keep a close eye on the weather due to temperature fluctuations. It might be 30ºF one day and 70ºF the next, so she’s always putting jackets on or taking them off. In addition, she beds them heavily with straw and has a few doors that she can put on the youngest calves’ doors to keep them inside the hutch and protected from the weather. Should any calf need it, she can also bring them into the heated vet room and warm them up.

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Tim and Nikki Crawley

Nikki places a high priority on cleaning and disinfecting. Every hutch is power-washed and disinfected in between calves. Water and grain buckets are disinfected weekly and are different colors than the milk buckets to ensure the right feed always goes into the right bucket. In addition, after each meal, every milk bucket is taken inside, washed and disinfected. Recently, Nikki has started having their milk replacer representative do luminometer tests on the calf area to check the bacteria load and see how well their cleaning protocols are working. She laughs because both times the rep has come back to tell her that he’s never seen milk buckets as clean as hers.

She admits that she might be a little bit meticulous or go a bit overboard, but she says she’d rather do that than not do enough.

Since they sometimes struggle with finding good help, Nikki says having set protocols is critical to the success of their calf program.

“I would say that we have a very structured program, so when I train somebody, they have procedures to follow,” Nikki says. “People appreciate that. This is what we do when this happens. I’m not saying that we don’t have gray areas. There are gray areas, but for the most part, we have procedures.”

For instance, anytime an employee notices a calf that might be sick, they have set things to look for and do to determine if the calf is truly sick and if she is, how best to treat her.

“We take their temperature and then look at the symptoms,” Nikki says. “Is the calf mopey? Is it not drinking the milk? Is it not eating its grain? How old is it? Are they coughing? Do they have snot? And then that’s how you figure out what to do.”

Once the employee knows what the calf has, they’re treated appropriately, be it electrolytes or some other treatment. Everything gets recorded on the sick calf list; that way other employees and Nikki know what calves to treat and where the calf is in her treatment. Keeping track of sick calves is also critical for veterinary oversight since it gives their vet a detailed list of each calf’s symptoms and treatments, enabling him to make an educated assessment of each calf and how best to treat her.

For Tim and Nikki, raising healthy calves is critical to having a healthy milking herd in the future. A future that their daughters, Jessica and Brittany, are considering being a part of.

“This is our future farm right here,” Nikki says. “This is going to be over there [milking herd] in a couple years. The better you take care of them when they are younger, the healthier they will be when they’re older.”

Should either or both of the girls decide to take over the dairy, they will become the fifth generation of Crawleys to farm and the fourth generation to dairy on that land, which has been in their family since 1922.  end mark

Jenna Hurty-Person
  • Jenna Hurty-Person

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PHOTO 1: After receiving 1 gallon of high-quality colostrum at birth, Nikki Crawley continues to feed the calves 2 quarts of colostrum for their next three feedings before switching them to milk replacer. She says they started doing this several years ago, and it's really improved their overall calf health.

PHOTO 2: Tim Crawley's father, Don, brought the first Milking Shorthorns to the dairy in 1950 and they've been a staple at the dairy ever since.

PHOTO 3: Tim and Nikki Crawley farm in Gravette, Arkansas, on land that has been in Tim's family since 1922. Photos by Jenna Hurty-Person.

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