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Wrights concentrate on calf care to make better cows

Progressive Dairyman Editor Jenna Hurty-Person Published on 06 March 2018
Wright Place Farm calf barn

In 2000 and 2004, Wright Place Farm in Clinton, Maine, decided to grow by buying neighboring farms. In 2012, Brian Wright challenged his brother Steve and uncle Ray, who co-own the 800-cow, 1,800-acre dairy with him, to increase production by improving the herd and facilities instead of buying another farm.

To accomplish this, they first zeroed in on cow comfort. They added additional fans in the cow barns, installed newer stalls and downsized the herd a bit so stocking density was consistently 115 to 120 percent in every pen. Brian says this is still more crowded than he would like, but the animals seem to be doing OK, so they have maintained the herd at this level. In addition, they split the fresh cows into two pens. One group consists of all first-lactation animals and the other group is the mature cows.

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The dairy also stopped using clean-up bulls. Brian says they realized that by using the bulls, they were perpetuating the hard breeders they didn’t want in their herd. Now cows that aren’t pregnant after three services are bred to a Limousin bull.

Finally, they focused on raising better heifers and started genomically testing heifers at a few weeks old to ensure they replaced cull cows with superior replacement heifers.

Today, Brian’s daughter Caleigh Wright, who completed college and moved back to the farm in 2011 with her husband, Andrew Miller, oversees the calf program. Ray, who is now retired, helps out with the calves when he can.

Calf care starts at birth. Within an hour, calves receive 1 gallon of pasteurized colostrum. Shortly after that, they also receive a colostrum bolus, an intranasal vaccine and an injectable colostrum supplement, which protects calves against a variety of common scours- and pneumonia-causing bacteria. Calves then receive a second feeding of 2 quarts of unpasteurized colostrum 12 hours after birth. All colostrum is tested using a brix refractometer. Anything that scores below 20 is thrown out, or if they’re running low on colostrum, they will use it at the second feeding.

During the winter, newborn calves will go into a warming box with insulated walls and heat lamps until they dry off. Once they’re dry, calves get a calf jacket and are moved to one of the farm’s three greenhouse calf barns. In the summer, calves are typically moved to a calf barn within a few hours of birth. Bull calves and crossbred calves are sold once a week. Since the dairy only needs 25 to 30 heifer calves per month, any heifer calves that are expected to have a low net merit are also sold at this point.

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Wright Place Farm calf barn outside

In the barns, calves stay in individual pens. Initially they’re fed 2 quarts of 24-20 milk replacer twice a day. Each week Caleigh increases their allotment by a quart until calves receive a full gallon per feeding. During the winter, she switches the calves to a 24-24 milk replacer to give them a little extra energy. Calves have water right away, and after the first week, they receive a 22 percent pelleted starter.

Calves start weaning at 7 weeks old, provided they’re eating at least 4 pounds of calf starter per day. To wean them, Caleigh takes away their evening feeding for a week and has them completely off of milk replacer by 8 weeks old, at which point calves have access to hay in addition to the calf starter.

Caleigh says she only has about 10 cases of pneumonia a year in the calf barns and overall morbidity is usually around 5 percent, while mortality is under 1 percent. She attributes a big portion of this to their ventilation.

“It always feels warmer in there because the calves are in there and you’re out of the wind, but it’s usually only a couple degrees warmer than it is outside, so it never gets steamy in there,” Caleigh says. “It never gets stale in there.”

The top portion of the front and back walls of the calf barns is a screen. This portion is high enough to keep a draft off the calves without limiting airflow. In addition, the garage door on the front of the barn stays open most of the time to further encourage airflow. During the summer, the sides are rolled up and both doors are opened. They also place a large fan at one end to keep air moving if there isn’t a natural breeze.

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At 3 months old, calves are comingled and moved to another barn on the main dairy, where they will stay for a month or two before being moved to the dairy’s heifer raising facilities down the road. Heifers return to the main dairy about three weeks prior to calving.

Since the calves are genomically tested within a few weeks of birth, the dairy has the results by the time calves are ready for weaning. Caleigh says it can be surprising at times.

“Visually they really don’t look that much different,” Caleigh says. “Sometimes it’s funny because you’ll get a calf and you’re like, ‘This calf really does not look that impressive.’ Not like growth wise or anything, she just doesn’t look very dairy, and she’ll come back with the best numbers, while some of the ones that you would take to a show come back with awful numbers. I don’t see a whole lot of change in them, but at freshening in, you notice it. They’re put together better. They have better udder composition.”

Wright Place Farm heifer raising facility

Caleigh and the rest of their heifer raising team use the test results to guide their culling decisions. For example, they will be quicker to cull a low net merit heifer that isn’t growing well or has been treated multiple times since they know she will never be a highly productive replacement heifer.

However, Caleigh’s main use for the tests is to note which heifers will be bred to which bulls down the road. While these numbers have and continue to change as the dairy improves its herd, heifers with 300 net merit or lower are bred to Angus bulls while heifers over 900 net merit are bred to sexed semen. Everything else is bred to conventional semen. Every Holstein bull used is over 800 net merit. Similar to the cows, any heifer that is still not pregnant after three services is bred to an Angus bull regardless of her net merit.

Caleigh says she sees the biggest change in their animals once they enter the milking parlor. When they first started genomically testing, the farm had a rule: Heifers had to produce 50 pounds of milk per day by day 50 of lactation or they were sold. Their cull rate was high due to this rule, and it frustrated Caleigh.

“It costs so much to raise them,” Caleigh says. “It was really obnoxious to see them get on the truck after milking them for two months and they’re not producing.”

Today, Caleigh says they’ve upped it to 60 pounds per day by day 50, and in 2017, they only culled a handful of heifers due to underproduction.

That isn’t the only benefit either. Brian says their overall herd stats have drastically improved as well. In 2012, the farm had a 25,000-pound rolling herd average and cows averaged 90 pounds of milk per day. Now, the farm has a 30,000-pound rolling herd average, cows average 98 pounds of milk per day and their SCC is 100,000. In addition, the herd has a 30 percent pregnancy rate and heifers typically freshen at 22 months.

While they do plan to continue focusing on improving the quality of the animals on their farm, Brian says their next big focus is improving and updating their parlor and other facilities to better set the dairy up for the next generation to take over.  end mark

Jenna Hurty-Person
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PHOTO 1: Calves are bucket trained at 3 or 4 days old. Initially, they receive 2 quarts of milk replacer twice a day. Each week Caleigh Wright increases their milk by a quart until they're receiving a full gallon per feeding.

PHOTO 2: Caleigh Wright says between the large screens on either end of the calf barns and keeping the front garage door open most of the time, even during the winter, keeps air from getting stale in the barns.

PHOTO 3: Heifers are moved to the farm's heifer raising facility at 4 to 5 months old, depending on space, and stay there until three weeks prior to calving. Brian Wright says he prefers to keep the youngest calves at the dairy where they have a larger staff and can keep a closer eye on them. Photos by Jenna Hurty-Person.

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