Shannon Houselog, general manager at Global Dairy, is very pleased with their new 400-head calf facility. Over the past year, there have been minimal death losses and zero cases of pneumonia in the new facility.PHOTO BY JERRY NELSON
Shannon Houselog, general manager at Global Dairy, is very pleased with their new 400-head calf facility. Over the past year, there have been minimal death losses and zero cases of pneumonia in the new facility.
ESTELLINE, S.D. - Dairy farmers are constantly striving to improve their operations. Very often, these improvements come about due to some innovative and outside-the-box thinking.
Global Dairy's new calf facility is an example of this kind of thinking.
Some 2,500 dairy cows call Global Dairy their home near Estelline, S.D. One of Global Dairy's partners, Arjan Blok, owns an agricultural consulting and construction business called United Development, LLC.
Up until a little over a year ago, Global Dairy's calves were housed in a barn that featured a bedded pack, adjustable curtains and natural ventilation. Unsatisfied with the performance of this facility, Blok set about to design and build something entirely different to house their calves.
Shannon Houselog is the general manager of the dairy. She is in charge of the dairy's day-to-day operations, including the care of their calves.
"Arjan and his team took inspiration from modern baby pig nurseries when they began to design our new baby calf facility," Houselog said. "They wanted our new facility to be more effective at providing a healthy and comfortable environment for our baby calves."
The new calf facility can accommodate up to 400 calves. The calves are kept in groups of 25 in pens that measure 15 by 25 feet. These pens are more like separate rooms, each of which has its own ventilation system and environmental controls.
Butterfly shaped inlets in the ceilings of the rooms let fresh air flow downward from the barn's insulated attic. The inlets are designed in such a way that the incoming air is diverted toward the walls and the calves don't feel any drafts.
The floors of the calf rooms are made of a grid of welded rebar. Attached to the underside of the rebar grid is a set of tubes that carry heated water to help keep the floors warm. About a foot below the rebar floor is a shallow pit that contains several inches of water.
"The water in the pit helps control the odors and holds down the ammonia levels," Houselog said. "Every two weeks, we will pull a plug at the end of the pits and flush out the water and the calf waste. The water and waste is collected and pumped out to our existing manure lagoon. We then put about 5 inches of fresh water back into the pit."
As in many modern swine nurseries, there is no bedding used in the calf nursery.
"The bedding expense for our calf nursery is zero," Houselog said. "We have to buy propane to heat the building, but we are spending less now for propane than we used to spend on bedding."
Each calf room is equipped with an automatic calf feeder that dispenses milk replacer to the animals. Each room also features a trough for calf starter feed and a stainless steel drinking cup.
A long hallway runs along the north side of the building. This hallway gives workers easy access to the doors of the calf rooms. A set of heaters hanging from the ceiling takes the chill out of the hallway's air during wintertime. When warmer weather arrives, removable wall panels can be opened to allow more air flow into the facility. The hallway, which is spacious enough to house pallet loads of milk replacer, also features in-floor heat.
Calves spend their first two days of life in a maternity area. During this time, they are fed plenty of colostrum while their hooves harden. Once they are put into a group pen, the calves stay with that group through weaning.
"We begin the weaning process when the calves are 42 days old," Houselog said. "We gradually taper off how much milk replacer the calves receive until they are fully weaned at 54 days. We keep them in the nursery for another 10 days before we move them."
Newly weaned calves are moved from the nursery into a facility that is not heated. But the new facility can help their calves make the adjustment.
"During the wintertime, our weaned calf barn can be a lot colder than our nursery facility," Houselog said. "We have the ability to gradually lower the temperature of each individual nursery pen to as low as 50 degrees. That way, the calves won't experience such a temperature shock when they are moved out after weaning."
After a little more than a year of operating its new calf facility, Global Dairy has gained a sense of how things are going.
"This facility is working extremely well," Houselog said. "Our mortality rate is minimal. Thanks to all the attention we have paid to the environment and ventilation, our rate of respiratory disease is zero; we haven't seen a single case of pneumonia since moving into this facility. From birth through 65 days of age, our calves are gaining an average of just over two pounds per head per day."
But the savings and efficiencies do not end there.
"Our baby calf facility has been designed in such a way that one employee can manage all of our 400 baby calves and will often have time left over to help out in the dairy barn," Houselog said.
The reasons for Global Dairy constructing their new calf facility would be familiar to any dairy farmer.
"The calves are our future," Houselog said. "The better start we can give them, the better they will do as mature cows. If an animal can be kept healthy from birth onwards, it will be more likely to perform at its full genetic potential as an adult."
Houselog is extremely pleased with the performance of the new calf nursery.
"This facility is worth much more than what we put into it because of the low calf mortality rate and the non-existent respiratory issues," she said. "We believe that this building is the first of its kind and that there is nothing else quite like it."