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Pankratz family focus on youngstock positions farm for future

Sherry Bunting for Progressive Dairyman Published on 29 December 2015
calf barn

Steve and Barb Pankratz were looking to the future of their central Wisconsin dairy farm when they set out to build a new calf facility aimed at positioning the dairy to continue with three active generations now, and the promise of a future for the fourth.

Labor was a big motivator as the farm is home to both a 120-cow dairy herd and a cash crops and custom harvesting operation.



See more photos of the facility in this slideshow.

The farm was founded by Steve’s father, Duane, in 1946. Today, Steve and Barb’s children, Jon, Matt and Kaylan, all work here too. Jon cleans and beds all the barns and runs and maintains the equipment. Matt does all of the cow and heifer feeding. Steve and Kaylan do the milking, herd health and repro work, while Barb manages the calves. With 1,000 acres of dairy forage and cash crops, along with a custom harvesting business, everyone in the three generations pitches in on the fieldwork.

After researching calf facilities and feeding systems for what they wanted to accomplish, the new 84-feet-by-280-feet curtained calf facility laid out for 10 groups was completed in the fall of 2014.

While they milk just 120 cows, the new calf facility positions Pankratz Farms to expand with the flexibility to raise heifer replacements for a future dairy herd of 400 cows. For now, they have added bull calves grown from birth to 800 pounds and sold as feeder steers to a beef feedlot in Iowa.

Pankratz Farms calf barn


Barb admits she was getting tired with the previous physical handling of calves. She is happy about trading the time-intensive manual labor of hutch cleaning and pail feeding for the group pens and automatic CalfMom feeding system, which has also added another revenue stream in raising beef steers.

“It’s nice to see healthy calves and feel we’ve accomplished something when we sell steers and move heifers out the other end of the building,” Barb says with a smile. “We spend the same amount of time on our calves, but now our time takes care of more calves and we’re doing a better job.”

“The work is different now,” adds Jon. “Even though we have more calves to care for, we spend less time feeding and more time managing.” They also spend more time cleaning simply because there are four times as many calves on the farm now.

“The calves have a cleaner environment, with better air quality,” he adds. “The cleaning is easier because it is all done with a skid loader instead of hand-scraping, so we clean the barn every other day. The calves are healthy, and we are seeing better rates of gain and bigger calves.”

Barb likes that she can keep an eye on her calves by checking the computer. “I’m not feeding them individually anymore, but I can follow them as groups and individuals. I can easily track them and see who didn’t eat. Instead of focusing on getting the feeding and hutch cleaning done, I can slow down and see things I didn’t see before. I can find problems faster now.”

She also sees their natural habits, and the information provided by the automatic feeding system shows when individuals deviate from their habits. “One may choose to eat every 12 hours and another much more frequently,” Barb observes. “But when a calf strays from its normal pattern, I see that.”


The big thing Barb and Jon notice is “how much more relaxed” the calves are in this group housing and automatic feeding system. “They were so skittish before,” Barb observes.

calf barn computer

At Pankratz Farms, the calves are still weaned at 8 weeks old. “We did not change our weaning schedule, but we notice our calves are bigger at weaning, and we are seeing less scours,” Barb reports.

Newborn calves are started in individual plastic pens inside the facility for the first three to five days of life, and then move into small groups in order to manage their ultimate groupings of 15 to 25 so that the ages in a group don’t vary by more than two weeks.

Calves have access to starter grain from day one, and when they reach 300 pounds, they get haylage as well.

They report that out of the first 100 calves raised in the new facility, they lost only two.

For accuracy, the two master units are calibrated once a month, but are otherwise self-contained for mixing milk replacer and self-cleaning, allowing them to be stationed in the barn’s center feed alley instead of in a separate mixing room. Together, the two master units connect four drinking stations, but are capable of connecting eight.

With the future in mind, the family’s decisions about the barn’s layout, equipment and systems focused on calf comfort, progressive management and flexibility as future decisions are made about the size and potential for robotic milking some day with the milk herd.

calf barn thermostatically controlled curtains

Situated to maximize the natural ventilation with automatic top and bottom curtains, the Pankratz calf facility is equipped with temperature and rain sensors. “We set the bottom curtains to close automatically at 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and the top curtains begin to close when the temps get below 36,” Jon says, explaining that the system figures an average of the data from three temperature sensors on each side of the barn. “Rain sensors give us automatic control of the side curtains to close when it rains.”

The insulated roof includes chimney fans for air circulation, and positive air pressure tubes are operated all year for the “chimney effect.”

Small fans are placed above the feeders to keep the feeding areas dry, and the pens are bedded once a week to further reduce air moisture and improve air quality as well as calf hygiene.

“The calves tell us if the facility is right, and we’ve had no signs of respiratory problems,” Steve says. “The LED lighting is great to work in, and it also helps us be energy efficient.”

Jon graduated from high school in 1999 and spent eight years working with all things mechanical in town. Married with three boys, ages 2 through 5, he is glad to be back at the farm since 2008, raising part of the potential fourth generation at Pankratz Farms.

“I like the freedom of this work and the new challenges of something different every day,” he says.

What is most satisfying to Steve, as he looks down through the calf barn, is the hope for the next generation. “Having the kids here and part of the farm, that’s the best part,” he says. “Having three active generations on the farm and seeing the little guys get interested ... makes it all worthwhile.”

“Steve’s dad [Duane] loves to come down here and just sit and watch the calves,” adds Barb. “He really likes this barn.”  PD

PHOTO 1: The CalfMom master units are self-contained, automatically self-clean and link to additional drinking stations in the barn. While the calf feeders auto-clean internally three times a day, Jon cleans the nipple lines and wipes down the outside of the drinking stations every morning. Occasional spraying for fly control is reduced with an additive in the milk replacer and calf feed.

PHOTO 2: Sized to raise heifer replacements for a 400-cow herd, the new facility currently raises heifers for the current 120-cow herd size and bulls that are born on the farm and purchased for growing to 800 pounds for beef feedlots. The new calf barn is capable of housing 250 calves in 10 groups.

PHOTO 3: Data on the calves can be accessed at the CalfMom and by computer.

PHOTO 4: Thermostatically controlled curtains and LED lighting conserve energy and improve conditions. Photos by Sherry Bunting.