Raising calves for success Bullermans launch calf raising enterprise as way to bring in next generation
At 10 days of age, calves at the Bullerman calf raising operation are moved into pens that hold a dozen animals each. The pens are all equipped with headlocks and bottle holders that the Bullermans designed and built. “Each pen has a water fountain,” said Lane. “You would be surprised at the amount of water a baby calf will drink.” (photo by Jerry Nelson)
Upon arriving at the Bullerman farm, baby calves are placed in one of these 440 individual stalls where they will spend the first 10 days of their lives. “The individual stalls make it easier to keep an eye on them during those critical first 10 days,” said Lance. (photo by Jerry Nelson)
Jerry Nelson Staff Writer
ADRIAN, Minn. - Baby calf care is an essential part of dairy farming. While many producers enjoy calf chores, bottle feeding more than a handful of calves at once might seem overwhelming.
Lane Bullerman and his family know just a bit about calf rearing, as they bottle feed some 1,200 baby calves every day.
"This farm has been in the family since 1884, when my great-grandfather homesteaded here," said Lane. "Our sons are the fifth generation of our family to farm this land."
Lane and his wife, Kim, have three grown sons: Cody, Lance, and Dusty. They have all joined the Bullerman operation, which encompasses about 4,000 acres.
Lane milked 80 cows in a stanchion barn until 1991. "Our facilities were old and it seemed like we had to either get bigger or get out," he said.
But within a year of quitting the business, Lane was back into dairying - albeit in a more specialized manner.
"I was at an auction when I ran into a friend who was one of the investors at Sibley Dairy," Lane recalled. "He mentioned that they had just built a new calf barn, but still didn't have enough room for all their calves. I had an empty barn at home, and a light went on in my head."
Lane converted his old stanchion barn into a calf raising facility, thus launching a new phase of the Bullerman farming operation.
It wasn't long before Lane began to think about expanding his calf raising venture. "I could see that our boys all wanted to come home to farm, so we just kept expanding the heifer raising part of the operation," he explained.
The Bullermans no longer raise heifers for Sibley Dairy but have since developed a portfolio of larger dairies that use their services. This includes Plymouth Dairy, Dykstra Dairy, Asthmas Dairy, and Roorda Dairy, all of which are located in northwest Iowa.
Seven days a week, the Bullermans pick up newborn calves as they travel a 180-mile route between these dairies. On average, 25 to 30 newborn calves will arrive daily at the Bullerman farm.
"Once the calves are born, it's the dairy's job make sure that it gets colostrum. Ideally, each calf will get a gallon of colostrum within two hours of birth and another one-half gallon six hours later. After that, the dairy is done with the calf," said Lance.
"Good communication with our dairy farmers is extremely important," said Lane. "The secret of our success is trust. We started out with written contracts, but now everything is pretty much done on a handshake basis. Our dairy farmers know that if our costs go up, we will have to charge more for raising their heifers. We both have to be able to make money."
The Bullermans take all the heifers and bulls from their dairies. The dairies retain ownership of the heifers, while the Bullermans purchase the bulls which are fed out and sold on the beef market.
Upon arriving at the Bullerman farm, newborn calves are placed in individual stalls where they spend the first 10 days of their lives.
"The individual stalls make it easier to keep an eye on them during those critical first 10 days," said Lance.
At 10 days, the calves are moved into grower pens that hold a dozen animals. Each pen is equipped with headlocks, plus bottle holders that the Bullermans manufactured. "We have found that keeping them in smaller groups makes them easier to manage and reduces stress on the calves," said Lance.
Feeding 1,200 bottle calves twice a day requires a bit of ingenuity. At the hub of this job is a an old 300-gallon milk tank that Lane purchased for $100.
A pair of agitators in the tank blends warm water with milk replacer. This mixture is then pumped into nine bottles at a time via a homemade stainless steel manifold.
The filled bottles, which are held in plastic crates that were originally used for gallon milk jugs, are loaded onto one of several Kubota utility vehicles the Bullermans own. "We couldn't do it without the Kubotas," said Lane. "We can haul 102 bottles in each one. They're as important to us as a corn planter is at corn planting time."
It takes eight people about two and a half hours to feed 1,200 calves in the morning, about two hours in the evening. A white board is used to chart how many animals are in each pen and to keep notations about any calves that might need attention.
"Either Lance or I walk all the pens twice a day after feeding," said Lane. "We watch the calves all the time and try to treat them before they even know they are sick. If the feeder notices that a calf seems a bit off, he will mark that calf by putting a clothes pin on the steel pipe above its head lock."
The Bullermans report that their biggest disease challenge is scours caused by Salmonella.
"We watch them closely and we treat aggressively," said Lance.
The timing of vaccinations is another hard-won nugget of knowledge the Bullermans have acquired.
"We don't vaccinate anything until six weeks of age. Before then, it seems like their immune systems are too young," said Lane.
Up until this past January, the Bullermans fed waste milk collected from their dairy farm customers.
"We quit due to the uneven quality of the waste milk," said Lane. "Some of it tested below one percent butterfat. You might as well be feeding water!"
Calves are fed milk replacer twice a day for 55 days, then once a day for five days to ease them into the weaning period. A sharp eye is kept on the climate in the Bullermans' eleven calf barns.
"In the wintertime, we try to keep it at about 35 to 40 degrees," said Lane. "It pays to control the climate. We have found that steers finish 30 days earlier in a climate-controlled environment."
The Bullermans rear the calves for 10 months. The 600-pound animals are then sent to a heifer grower who breeds them and returns them to their dairy of origin as springers.
Lane Bullerman said that three things his father taught him have helped him succeed in the calf raising business.
"First of all, you have to put work before pleasure. It takes a lot of time and patience to raise baby calves. Second, you have to be consistent and don't rush. We have found that consistency improves when you have one or two bosses working with the crew.
"But I think the most important thing is that I treat each and every baby calf as if it were my own."