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Consistency is name of game in new calf barn at Carlson Dairy in Minnesota

Sherry Bunting Published on 06 November 2015
calf pens

Carlson Dairy is moving towards a fifth generation as brothers Chad and Carl Carlson, their wives, Kindra and Kellie, and parents, Curtney and Louise – along with the seven children between them – continue the legacy of dairy farming begun near Pennock, Minnesota, in 1891.

Each has a role at the farm, but they make the big decisions together and enjoy working together with family on the farm.



Today, the 1,300-cow dairy includes a new 60-by-260-foot calf facility completed in September 2014, after Chad previously divided the old hoop barn to compare the performance of calves fed automatically in groups versus individually by hand and learned the habits of calves in automatic feeding systems.

See the new calf barn and automatic feeding system in this slideshow.

“There is more up-front investment involved in our calf building and automatic feeding, but I believe this is a good way to manage our calves,” says Chad, who manages the farm’s cropping operations and youngstock. “Our labor is now more efficient and our management more consistent. If we’ve done all the management and setup – and we all have to be gone from the dairy – anyone can stop in to put powder in the machines and we know the calf feeding remains consistent.”

Chad views calves as social creatures. They are less skittish and more accustomed to people in the pens, but do not associate them with a milk feeding. He reports that the weaning itself is much less stressful in the group-housing and auto-feeding setup, and each transition is improved thereafter as they move to other social groups on their way to the milking herd.

In fact, the first 2-year-olds from Chad’s experimental group are freshening now. They were ready to breed a month earlier than the farm’s prior average.


For the new calf barn’s eight groups, the Carlsons decided on a parallel feeding setup with four CalfMom master units, each connected to its own set of four drinking stations – two on each side of a pen divider.

fan in calf pen

For ventilation, they went with cross-ventilation and have the positive-pressure air tubes available if they choose to use them. Currently, they are relying on the two-tiered, cross-ventilation system. Each two-group pen has a small fan that stays on, while the larger, variable-speed fans are controlled by sensors hanging from the ceiling above the center of each pen.

Equipped with four large and four small exhaust fans (paired to each of the four two-group pens) on the north side of the barn and temperature controlled curtains on the south side, as well as air inlets in the ceiling, everything is thermostatically programmed at the control panel. As winter approaches, the curtains start coming up. A 4-foot overhang is useful in keeping rain out when the curtains are down, so rain sensors are not used.

“The scariest thing for me was the ventilation,” Chad admits about building the facility. “Ours is still a work in progress.”

Towards the end of last winter, they stopped using the air tubes because Chad observed the air being stirred too much, creating drafts and dead spots.


“I love how cross-ventilation works and wanted to preserve that,” says Chad, who did a lot of his own research. He advises, “Do your own research and work with companies you trust. You’ve got to figure out what works for you, and even then, you keep experimenting and adjusting.”

At Carlson Dairy, Chad says, “We now let the cross-ventilation fans do all the work drawing air across each pen in one steady flow for even distribution. I prefer the wide, square pens over long, narrow pens, to shorten the distance and increase the consistency of airflow over each pen. We want to keep bringing the airflow across each pen vertically.”

In west central Minnesota, it goes without saying that winter time is the hardest time of year to manage calves in any setup. Chad will monitor how cross-ventilation, alone, works this winter – without the use of the air tubes.

Chad Carlson with flip phone

Being a stickler for observation and numbers, Chad gathers in-weights and out-weights, and keeps accurate data on average daily gain (ADG) at Carlson Dairy, where calves are weaned at 49 days, and their feeding is programmed automatically to peak at 42 days, then gradually cut back.

“We were feeding three times a day, so we were already getting ADG of 1.75 to 2 pounds per day. The growth rates now are even better and definitely more consistent,” Chad reports. “We are seeing growth rates consistently above 2 pounds now. Our last group averaged 2.24, and the group before that was 2.17.”

He observes one of the best things about the new calf facility and group housing system is the consistent growth and being able to use time more efficiently to observe the calves and be proactive to keep them healthy.

“Without our physical labor tied up in feeding, we find it much easier to manage calves in the group environment. All of the tasks, from feeding milk and grain to cleaning and bedding, are much more efficient,” Chad explains. “In the old system, you fed them, so you knew they either drank or didn’t drink. In this system, we catch subtle changes earlier, but you have to be on your A-game and manage the groups through both observation and computerized reports.”

He likens the management adjustment to going from milking in a tiestall barn to a parlor: “In both cases, you go from being right there working with the animal every day to relying on computerized data for some of your information. We look at the calves and combine our observations with the data.”

Chad contrasts his management style with that of the barn’s manager, Joyce Weber. “She will look at the computer first when she arrives in the morning and then look at the calves. I like to come in and look at the calves first and then verify what I see by looking at the computer,” he relates. “Either way, we are catching things earlier in this system.”

Joyce Weber guiding newborn calf

The calves start in smaller, 12-head groups in the two pens at the west end of the building, where the master feeder is programmed to deliver milk replacer combined with 20 percent colostrum for the first two weeks. When those pens are full, they are combined and moved to one of the next sets of pens. There, the next master feeder is programmed to mix milk replacer for four drinking stations serving two larger groups of 25 calves each.

Calves also have access to free-choice starter and water from day one, and electrolytes are added to the water for the first four weeks of life.

“We use the first two pens to start them on automatic feeding from day one in the smaller groups simply because it’s less pressure for them,” Chad explains.

The two groups at the east end, where they exit after weaning, receive straight milk replacer and are increasing their starter consumption and access to mineral tubs.

In selecting his auto-feeding setup for the facility, Chad says, “I wanted each feeding unit to be able to do everything on its own, so I can set the programing on each one independently. I also wanted two drinking stations per pen because we keep our pens full, and I wanted calves to have no discouragement from drinking as often as they want.”

He looks forward to the next phase of the plan at Carlson Dairy to build a new heifer barn so they can move calves out of the new calf barn faster with less overcrowding.  PD

PHOTO 1: The cross-ventilated calf barn is divided into eight pens, each with two drinking stations, free-choice starter, minerals and water. (Electrolytes are added for the first four weeks.) The Carlsons prefer the wide, square pens over the long, narrow pens, to shorten the distance and increase the consistency of airflow over each pen.

PHOTO 2: Joyce Weber trains the incoming calves and reports that 20 percent come up to a drinking station right away without any prompting, 50 percent are onto it after their first guided feeding, 20 percent after a second guided feeding and less than 10 percent need more encouragement.

PHOTO 3: Chad Carlson laughs that he doesn’t even text and still uses a flip phone, but he is an advocate of technology in milking and calf feeding. “If I can do it, anyone can,” he says. He chooses to view the calf data at the CalfMom unit, while Joyce Weber prefers to access it from her computer and smart phone.

PHOTO 4: Calf barn manager Joyce Weber says it is important not to “babysit” the newborns when they come to the calf barn, but to watch and intervene only as necessary so they learn to rely on the drinking station, not the calf manager. Newborns are brought here 24 hours after their second feeding of colostrum. The starting groups have 12 head each to reduce pressure. Chad Carlson’s experiments in the old barn showed him that some calves will drink a little and visit the station all day long, while others want to consume more milk at a visit and do so less often. Photos by Sherry Bunting.