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High stakes: Idaho ranch raises 9,000 calves

Published on 21 September 2009
If you had 9,000 calves to feed each day, how would you do it? With an operation that size you have to have a good system that is efficient and exact. Jon Mortensen of Fullmer & Mortensen Cattle company, a custom calf-raising operation in Melba, Idaho, devised a system that is the only such facility he knows of to date.

“We wanted a system where we could feed a large number of calves efficiently,” says Mortensen, who has between 9,000 and 11,000 calves on milk each day. “We wanted a facility big enough that we could have drive-throughs on both sides and two crews on both sides, [and] enough capacity that if I wanted to fill four bottle trailers at a time, I could do that.

"We wanted a facility where we could maximize labor efficiency, but more importantly, we wanted to be perfect on our formulas, sanitation, temperature control and all aspects of mixing milk, because we are in the business of raising baby heifers. They are worth a lot of money. We want to try to eliminate as many sources of sickness as we can. This is an investment for the dairies that we raise for.”

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With precision as his top priority, Mortensen used the services of five different companies to put together his 18,500-square-foot building, where he can store ingredients, hold up to 30,000 gallons of milk, pasteurize milk and prepare it to be fed to the calves.

“I can store about 12 semi-loads of product in here at a time. There are lunch rooms and bathrooms. It’s a very nice facility,” says Mortensen, who also says the building took about four years to build because he had no blueprints to follow.

Now that the building is running, the operation he runs in it is equally impressive. First he has a driver go to all the dairies he raises calves for and picks up all their waste milk that can’t go to the cooperative, about 120 miles round trip.

Each day they get between 3,000 to 4,000 gallons. The milk is brought back to the facility and held in the tank until it’s ready to be processed. From one touch screen, a desired amount of milk is put in one of the six tanks, where it is pasteurized and fortified with vitamins and minerals.

The formula for what goes into the milk is determined by a nutritionist. Then it is taken straight to the calves to be fed.

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“The formulas change throughout the year depending on the calorie requirements of the calves,” explains Mortensen, whose operation brings in new calves every day. “A calf works just as hard to keep itself cool as it does to keep itself warm. If you feed a 20/20 milk replacer, it doesn’t really do much more than just maintain its bodyweight.

"If you have 30ºF weather, then your calves will start losing weight. When you are feeding calves, you need to have the ability to give calves enough energy to keep them going 12 months out of the year.”

Mortensen has a series of presets that determine exactly how many minerals and vitamins are fed. These presets are communicated through a coding system that is attached above the screen and can be changed when needed.

“We have presets for when pneumonia is coming on, we have presets for different levels of scours, different things, so when we start to see a problem, we don’t have to figure it out – we just hit the button because the preset has already been put into the computer for what we need to do. We aren’t waiting for a nutritionist, we aren’t waiting for a veterinarian, we aren’t waiting for someone to help us decide what to do next. It’s already been decided.”

Mortensen prefers the vat pasteurizing system to commercial systems because he sees it as “idiot- proof.”

“When you’re vat pasteurizing, you can stick a thermometer in there and see how hot it is,” says Mortensen, while he stands next to his three industrial-sized boilers.

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“If you are running it through a commercial pasteurizer, there are so many potential breakdowns and you don’t realize it until you have a problem with your calves. Then you have to tear the thing apart to try and find where the problem is. We like this system because it’s idiot- proof.”

The system is also labor-efficient and worker-friendly. Most of the system is cleaned several times a week, if not daily, as are the pipes and hoses which are flushed every day. Extra care was taken to make sure the employees would have the tools they need to do their job and do it well.

“The labor savings is that we have one guy that can monitor all six tanks up there,” says Mortensen. “It’s very accessible and easy for him to work up there. The clean-in-place (CIP) system is really handy. When he’s done he puts a spray ball on the tank, hits the switch and everything washes. That’s a labor saver – you’re not manually cleaning tanks, it’s all done with the CIP.

"Pressure washers are on all four corners, so the guys have access to a washer to clean calf bottles and whatever they need. Everything is right there at your hands, you just reach and grab and it’s right there.” PD

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