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‘We’re not alone’: Calf, heifer growers adapt and innovate

PD Staff Published on 30 August 2013

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Quality calves are the future investment of every dairy operation, but raising them until they are ready to put milk in the tank is no easy task.

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One of the founding principles of the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association is that growers can help one another through exchanging ideas and information.

Filament Marketing’s Jennifer Ray sat down with three growers who have collaborated and partnered with others throughout their careers.

Although their operations are based on long traditions, these leaders have not been afraid to adapt and continue to improve their management practices so they can provide customers with quality calves and heifers.

How did you get started in the heifer business?

Edler: My parents are dairy farmers. I went away to college and worked for Westfalia Surge for a few years after graduation. In 2005, I returned to the dairy as the main calf and heifer manager.

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A good opportunity came along to start a partnership with a retired couple who owned a dairy farm about 45 minutes away.

Their milking facilities were getting a little tired, but the farm had a large land base. In 2009, we started Godfrey Farms on that land, which is dedicated solely to custom-raising heifers.

This allowed me to have a full-time job within the family operation, allowed my brother to grow more hay and corn, and helped our business to stay afloat.

Hartsough: I graduated from Purdue Veterinary School in 1977. I worked in mixed practice for several years before my wife and I decided to return to operate the family farm, of which I am fourth-generation.

Creekside Farms Inc. Heifer Growing and Development began in August 2005 as a change from raising beef cattle and hogs. I started raising heifers for just one dairy, not far from our farm.

Lujano-Gonzales: Cameiro Ranch has been raising dairy heifers since 1986. My late boss, Jerry Craveiro, was the vision behind this facility. He was a third-generation dairyman, and he noticed there was a need for a heifer operation.

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Jerry did a lot of traveling and on one of his trips to the Imperial Valley, he thought, “What a beautiful place to raise heifers.”

At that time, in the late ’80s, there were a lot of byproducts for feed and there were a huge amount of forages grown in the Imperial Valley, so he thought, “Why not bring the animals to the feed?” Personally, I have been working for Cameiro Heifer Ranch for 17 years and am currently the manager.

How would you describe your facility?

Edler: We keep our own calves at our 650-cow dairy until they are a little older. Then we move them to our contract heifer farm, which is 45 miles away. The earliest we receive the heifers we custom-raise is about 5 months old, and we keep them until springing.

Calves are kept in bedding-packed barns until they reach the breeding group. The breeding group and bred-heifer groups are kept in sand-bedded freestalls. The bred heifers also have access to a large pasture.

Hartsough: We have four hoop-style greenhouses in which we start the heifers. During the milk feeding phase, the heifers are in individual pens made from steel-rod hog panels.

The greenhouses have fans in one end, with the air intake at the opposite end providing the necessary air exchange. We also keep our bedding completely dry. Post-weaning, the heifers are moved to small group pens in outside lots with open-front buildings.

Lujano-Gonzales: We have about 132 open-air, dry-lot pens. Heifer calves arrive at our receiving when they are about 4 to 5 months old and are then transitioned into growing pens on the larger side of the yard. There is no enclosed housing; everything is open-lot.

The sun is out every day of the year, and you’re dealing with ambient temperatures all the time, whether it is in the summertime when it can be as hot as 120ºF to the cold winter, when we have a couple days of freezing – which is probably pretty mild by all standards, but to us, that’s an extreme.

Who is responsible for transporting calves and heifers to and from your operation?

Edler:
I take care of transporting the calves that come from our family dairy. Typically the producer is in charge of transportation, but we do pick up calves from one of our closest customers.

Hartsough: Three of our dairies deliver and pick-up their heifers. We provide transportation to our facility from one dairy, and the next phase grower provides transportation to their facility.

Lujano-Gonzales: Part of our contract states that we will pick up and deliver heifers to and from the dairy or calf ranch to our facility. I am in charge of setting up the trucking. Our nearest customer is 150 miles from us and the farthest is about 400 miles away.

What protocols do you follow when calves arrive at your facility?

Edler: All of the heifers we receive have already been given their Bangs vaccines. There are some farms that want their heifers’ ear notched and tested for persistently infected bovine viral diarrhea (BVD), which we’ll do upon request.

If we’re having problems with pneumonia, or if it’s in the wintertime, we will give a nasal vaccine on arrival. Depending upon the farm the animal is coming from, we may give a vitamin shot upon arrival.

If the animal is older and is ready for their next wormer, we’ll take care of that right away. All calves are weighed upon arrival, and their information is recorded in our computer system.

Hartsough: When calves arrive they can be anywhere from 1 day old to almost 14 days old. We used to give a nasal vaccine, but now the dairies are doing that before they arrive. We feel that boosts the immunity of the calf in a general way.

When they arrive, we weigh them on an electronic scale, look them over and feel their navels. The calves are then placed in individual pens and, typically, given an oral electrolyte solution. We find that many times calves need to be hydrated when they arrive.

We enter calf identification and entry information into our record system, HeiferPro. Every calf is tested for persistent infections of BVD and removed from our facilities immediately upon a positive test result.

Lujano-Gonzales: As the calves come off the truck, they walk through double-disinfectant footbaths. Heifers are put in dry, clean pens and are given fresh feed and water. We let heifers acclimate and minimize stress.

The morning after arrival, we lock heifers in stanchions. We document all relevant heifer information from ear tag numbers, birth dates and heifer health conditions and record the data in DairyComp.

What goals do you have for monitoring health and growth?

Edler: One of our goals is to have heifers at 800 to 850 pounds when we put them in the breeding group at 13 months. We shoot for an average age at calving around 22 to 23 months old.

Of course, this varies a little bit from farm to farm because I have dairies that are pretty aggressive and want their animals put into the breeding group at 12 months.

Conversely, we have another dairyman that prefers his heifers be placed in the breeding group at 16 months. We work with our individual customers to achieve the goals that fit their individual operations.

To help us manage the various goals, each farm has a herd code in the computer, and we run reports on a farm-by-farm basis.

Hartsough: We utilize the Penn State Growth Curve for Holsteins, focusing on the 70th to 75th percentile as a combined biological and financial optimum. We also follow the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards as closely as possible.

Other measurable parameters of performance are death rate and cull rate, for which the most recent 12-month period are 0.31 percent and 0.85 percent, respectively.

Our low death and cull rates we think are dependent primarily on two environmental factors and one biological factor, namely: air quality, bedding status and hydration.

Air quality and bedding status is best measured by imagining ourselves spending 24 hours lying in the pen along with the heifer, followed with the question: “Was it a pleasant experience?”

Hydration is observed in the eyes and neck skin pliability, and whether the heifer finishes its bottle of milk or not, at each feeding. In addition, with four buildings we follow an all-in-all-out animal movement system for each building with a prescribed downtime of, hopefully, two weeks between groups.

Lujano-Gonzales: We have different goals for each stage of the growing phase. We want heifers to weigh 800 pounds at breeding and to have the correct hip and wither height.

Once heifers go into the breeding area, we need to transition them out of that area in less than 60 days. We closely monitor the time the animals are in this area from the first insemination to their first pregnancy check and ultrasound.

Overall, we aim to have the heifers turned around and out of here within 17 months so they get back to the producer at 23 months old weighing 1,250 to 1,300 pounds.

How do you seek and maintain customers?

Edler:
We have been lucky that we have not had to look for new customers. Many of our dairies have grown from within and as their operations have grown, so have we. In fact, we have developed a partnership with a neighboring heifer operation to create room for raising more heifers.

Hartsough: We have been working with one dairy for which we made the initial contact. Two dairies came to us, tried us, and stayed with us. For the balance of our heifer inventory we engage the service of Buckeye Heifer Resources in Ohio.

Lujano-Gonzales: We’ve been in business since 1986 and have never, to date, needed to place advertisements for business. Our customers have been attained by word of mouth. The dairy industry has changed within the last five to six years. We’ve been very challenged in being able to grow because many dairies have closed up or relocated.

How has your business changed over the years?

Edler:
We try to continuously improve our operation. Facilities wise, when we first acquired the heifer farm that is about 45 miles away from our dairy, we did quite a bit of renovating of the buildings and manure storage.

Hartsough: When I first began raising baby heifers, I started, grew, bred and gestated them, returning them as springers to the dairy. As things evolved during tough financial times for the dairy industry, I found it necessary to purchase the animals to continue the heifer growing business.

Subsequently, I concentrated on the first 6 months of development, which was most compatible with my facilities. For the first two years, I would perform a necropsy on every calf that died to maintain a baseline of what was going on in the herd in terms of disease. Now, I very rarely need to perform a necropsy.

In 2008 a joint venture was created with Lowell and Heather Metzger utilizing their four greenhouse-type structures for starting baby heifers, which expanded the business.

The goal was to operate the facilities at capacity and provide enough income so the Metzger’s could realize their dream of rural life with their small children.

With this venture came some changes in the business towards providing only contract growing and limiting our services to raising heifers from birth to 4 months of age.

Lujano-Gonzales: We started with 100 heifers and then we grew to 1,000 heifers, to a couple thousand heifers. Our peak was 19,000 heifers. In the last six years, our business has declined due to changes in the dairy industry on the West Coast; it’s the nature of the beast.

We try to be cost effective so we can keep the customers we have and stay competitive.

What has been a challenge to your operation?

Edler: Like many others, unpredictable weather and drought in the last couple years has caused us to have to buy a lot of feed. We harvested first-crop and second-crop hay this year, so we have a little relief on feed costs.

The corn crop looks good, too. Another challenge for us is deciding if we’re going to expand as our customers continue to grow their dairies from within.

Hartsough: A significant challenge for this operation is to establish daily rates that are fair to the grower and the dairy. We know dairies have expenses and sometimes their income is limited.

We also know the cost of our inputs. We try to establish prices that are fair to both parties while making our business self-sustaining. Feed costs continue to be an impediment to profit.

Another challenge is matching facility space with fluctuating demand. There is a discernible seasonal difference in birth rates in our customers’ dairies.

There are times we don’t have as many heifers as we would like, and there are times there are more than we want. The daily contract price is not high enough to build additional facilities to handle the seasonal swell in numbers.

Lujano-Gonzales: Our greatest challenges are providing competitive rates, contracting reasonably priced commodities and maintaining heifer population.

How do you communicate with your customers?

Edler: We have a good working relationship with all of the dairies we raise for. If I find a problem or have a question on what they want to do with their heifers, we will call them up or text message them.

For example, we found a heifer that was supposed to be 150 days pregnant was open. She was 20 months old so I called the producer to see if he wanted to cull her or if he wanted us to try to breed her again.

My answer would be to cull her, but we always check with the owner of the animal to see what they would like to do. Most of the time the decisions they make are what we would have done anyway, but we just feel the animal’s owner needs to make the final decision on some of those things that come up.

We give our customers monthly reports on breeding, pregnancy rates and any additional information they request. Most of our communication is done over the phone, but we have made a point to visit each other’s farms.

Hartsough: We have visited each of the dairies from which we receive calves. People from the dairies have also visited our facilities. At our monthly billing, customers receive an informational printout on every calf. We also give a report of any deaths or culls. Personal communication is important through phone calls as needed, and in person at delivery or return of heifers.

Lujano-Gonzales: Since our nearest customer is 150 miles away, most of our communication is done over the phone and through email reports. There are a couple of dairymen that like to get text messages. For the most part we have phone conversations with the producers and that is a good way to get ahold of them.

When did you first become involved with the DCHA and why?

Edler: I heard about the DCHA leadership program last winter, and I filled out the application. I later found out I was accepted, and that’s how I got started.

I attended the annual meeting in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and I am now helping to plan the 2014 conference. I like to see how people in different parts of the country, and even people in the same area as myself, manage their operation and how they handle their challenges.

Sometimes it’s easier to see how other people handle things and to learn from the experts. The DCHA also provides tips and Gold Standards, which are handy.

Hartsough: I joined the DCHA within a year of entering the calf business. I was still learning the business even though I had animal agricultural background and bovine experience as a veterinarian.

When you get into specialized work like raising baby heifers, it’s good to rub shoulders and share information with people who are doing the same. I have been to two of the DCHA annual meetings and would like to go to more because that’s where you end up discussing details with people.

Typically, the educational sessions are quite good. It’s basically helping the way we exchange information. If I have some questions, I can contact other members I’ve met.

For example, when we decided which computerized record system to use, I found out what other people were using.

I also think it’s good that the association has developed standards because that gives us a measuring-stick of what is achievable in this business.

Lujano-Gonzales: My boss was one of the founding members of the DCHA, so we’ve been involved since its inception. The DCHA serves as a valuable resource network, and it gives me an opportunity to talk to like-minded individuals.

The DCHA serves as a valuable resourcing network, and it gives me an opportunity to talk to like-minded individuals. It provides the atmosphere to meet, chat, exchange ideas, learn from each other and realize that no two organizations are the same so there’s always something you can learn from someone else or that they can learn from you.

Over the course of DCHA’s existence, we’ve met a tremendous amount of people and have made some invaluable contacts. We’ve learned so many simple things. We’ve been able to meet a lot of great teachers and researchers.

We’ve also met interns who wanted to pursue a career in the dairy industry. It’s just been a huge networking opportunity for us.

Discussions with other members keep you grounded and let you know that we’re not alone. Someone else 3,000 miles away has the same problem we do.

What is your main goal as a calf and heifer grower?

Edler: Our main goal is to always raise quality replacement heifers for the dairies we contract with and to make sure they’re getting healthy animals that will be productive. We strive to maintain a good relationship with the people we grow for.

Hartsough: We started out wanting to be above average. We thought we knew how to do it, but of course we learned more as we went.

It is our reputation that will allow our business to carry on so we have to be diligent in maintaining what we call the objective measurable parameters. In other words we have to have numbers generated so we can present them to potential customers. Many times things are not the way you think they are by observation alone.

Lujano-Gonzales: Our goal is to raise quality heifers for our customers that will produce, breed back, and stay in the herd. PD

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