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Walking the line between calf care and out-of-pocket costs

Jennifer Bradley Published on 22 August 2014

dairy calf housing

Capital costs and quality calf care go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other; there will always be a financial impact following the building of a new calf barn or improvements to an existing one.

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Any farmer will agree that it’s a necessity ... but not always a welcome one. Calf housing is expensive, and to make the most of each dollar spent, farmers must walk the line between calf care and out-of-pocket costs.

Management style
Karl Arend, project manager and sales at Art’s Way Scientific Inc., says calf producers have many options when it comes to housing, including outdoor hutches and climate-controlled barns.

In any environment, the goal must be the same: a dry, cleanable space with a consistent supply of fresh air, food and water – all factors which ultimately contribute to healthy calves and cows.

Brian Wesemann, director of sales at Calf-Tel, Hampel Animal Care, agrees and says the first step farmers should take is deciding where they will be at with their calf business in five or 10 years.

“No matter what you do, it’s going to be hard to amortize whatever capital expense you have in less than five years,” he says. “Just make sure you have enough flexibility and options to change if your initial plan doesn’t work out.”

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Management style plays a big factor in this, and climate definitely affects management. No single farm raises calves the same as another.

Each farmer has their own unique concerns when making decisions based on the size of the herd, employees and even land availability. Arend and Wesemann agree that meeting with each farmer-client is the best way to determine what will address their needs and preferences.

With some thought and planning, both calf and farmer can be happy and healthy. “The art and science behind calf housing is that success and similar results can be achieved in different manners,” Wesemann says.

Your people matter
“She told her husband, ‘If I’m going to keep feeding calves, I’m not going to raise them in hutches any more,’” says Wesemann of a client. While this woman loved her job and wanted to keep caring for the farm’s calves, the cold winters were becoming a burden on her more each year. Her husband agreed with his wife, and in order to maintain consistency for the animals and staff, built an indoor facility.

On the other hand, another client, a 70-year-old woman, refused to accept the building of a calf barn and would only feed calves in hutches. And she’s happy to do so. Wesemann says her family felt she was going to be a part of the calf operations for another five years or so and did not put them inside.

Feeding is another preference of staff members, says Arend. “A couple of vets absolutely did not like the automatic calf feeders because then, when they come to do procedures or checks on the cows, they are not used to humans being around,” he explains. Others really like them because of the less labor required. “So it’s a trade-off, like anything,” Arend adds.

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Wesemann says happier employees will lead to well-tended calves, something a farmer should not undervalue when planning housing additions or renovations. He explains that even if calves are provided the recommended amount of square footage, poor welfare can exist if they are handled poorly. “There is definitely a caretaker perspective to be considered,” Wesemann says.

Keep calves de-stressed
Stress directly affects the weight gain of calves. Stress factors can include insects, pests, wet bedding and air quality. Arend says a de-stressed calf will carry those benefits for its entire lifespan. “Because the calf started off in a healthy environment, she will be healthier, stronger and will produce better.”

A calf’s lungs are still developing after its birth. During this time, poor air quality in the calf’s housing facility can lead to high levels of bacteria and viruses. Proper ventilation is something a farmer should not sacrifice for cost savings.

Cleanliness also counts. The Art’s Way modular calf buildings have a reinforced fiberglass coating system on all surfaces, similar to those found in a marine environment. This makes it highly cleanable, says Arend, and explains that a factory-installed soaker system helps to loosen any manure prior to the power wash and disinfection process.

Flies and other pests put stress on animals, as does wet bedding. Weight gain is affected by stress in young calves. Arend says a de-stressed calf will experience those benefits for its entire lifespan. “She actually produces more milk because she started off with correct milk and formula, and is healthier and stronger,” he says.

Wesemann says farmers must weigh the risk of their calf housing with the cost associated in upgrading it. “There’s more risk involved if you have one sick in a group of 20 with a similar amount of naïve immune systems,” he explains. “That doesn’t mean they can’t be managed, but you need people good at identifying challenges.”

Calculating cost
The cost of healthy calves should be considered a financial investment for the future. Arend says there are reports of farmers losing up to 200 calves in last year’s rough winter. “It makes a building very inexpensive when compared to the cost associated with the deaths they’ve had,” he says.

Calf housing options vary, as does the amount of labor each requires in order to maintain the healthiest living conditions. Arend says one less shot of medication can theoretically offset utility costs.

The ability to skip a revaccination protocol because the calves are healthy only puts farmers ahead of the game. “A lot of times, when figuring the cost of the building, farmers do not consider vet bills, death loss, bedding costs and factors related to their circumstances,” he explains.

He says that only 1 percent of the time, a farmer has put up one of their company’s modular buildings without a pit and scraper system, but it’s definitely another cost issue.

The other cost factors with any calf housing include the styles and brands of equipment used (painted stalls, stainless steel stalls, automatic waterers or robotic feeders, etc.) and manure management. Arend says the initial sticker shock may be overwhelming, but the return on investment in quality housing comes within a few years.

Wesemann says the robotic feeders have come a long way in the last decade but do require significant financial investment and a certain loss of the ability to manage the spread of disease vectors.

There’s also the buckets, bottles and open trough debate, which again depends a lot on the farm’s size and management style though they offers ways to balance quality care with capital costs.

“One of the clients we’re working with now is looking at various feeder options because he sees a significant labor savings,” Wesemann explains. “If he is able to do that successfully, he’ll be able to eliminate more than one full-time person, and that’s not insignificant.”

When walking the line between calf housing options and financial investments, both professionals agree it’s a personal decision and one that can be accomplished successfully for both calf and farmer.

“Progressive farmers are always looking for new ideas and say, ‘We are not going to do things a certain way just because that’s the way they’ve always been done,’” Arend concludes. “They have an open mindset and are successful because they’re looking for new technologies and techniques to enhance the well-being of their herd and their bottom line.” PD

Jennifer Bradley is a freelance writer in Chilton, Wisconsin.

PHOTO
The other cost factors with any calf housing include the styles and brands of equipment used (painted stalls, stainless steel stalls, automatic waterers or robotic feeders, etc.) and manure management. Arend says the initial sticker shock may be overwhelming, but the return on investment in quality housing comes within a few years. Photo courtesy of Karl Arend.

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