September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
On Jan. 12, 2013, four organic dairy farmers came together to discuss this very topic during an educational breakout session at the 2013 Minnesota Organic Conference in St. Cloud, Minn. During the session entitled, "Raising Thrifty Dairy Calves," panelists Brad Heins from the University of Minnesota's West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, Minn., Carol Kleppe from Gonvick, Minn., David Minar from New Prague, Minn., and Lisa Zweber from Elko, Minn., shared their secrets to successfully raising healthy dairy calves on their organic farms.
Groups are gold
At the U of M West Central and Outreach Center (WCROC), group feeding is the gold standard.
"We pride ourselves on group feeding and socialization of our calves," Heins said. "We think it aides in the ... health and well-being [of our calves]."
Newborn calves at the WCROC spend the first three days of life indoors, where they are fed colostrum twice a day. From there, they are sent outdoors to 12- by 19-foot super hutches. Each super hutch is bedded with a thick layer of straw and houses 10 calves.
Calves are group fed once a day in the super hutches, receiving about 1.5 gallons of milk per calf via a bowl feeder with 10 peach teat nipples. In addition, they receive free choice grain and water from the time they are three days old.
"It's kind of a free-for-all calf feeding system. They typically drink [the milk] in about three minutes, and then we are done feeding calves for the day," Heins said.
With that being said, Heins did say they monitor the calves closely to ensure each one gets up to the feeder to get her share of milk, as well as checking on the calves throughout the day.
Calves at the WCROC are weaned at 60 days old. At that time they are moved into larger group pens, with 20 calves each. They are turned out to pasture as early as five months of age, depending on the time of year they are weaned. All of the animals are outwintered.
"All of our heifers stay on pasture as much as possible until November," Heins said.
Early socialization plays a big factor in the success of the calf raising system at the WCROC. Growth rates for the calves in the super hutches average 1.5 pounds per day.
"We get fairly good growth rates ... and we've had very few health problems," Heins said.
Details drive success
To be a dairy calf at the Kleppe dairy farm near Gonvick, Minn., is to be cherished and treated as one of the farm's most prized possessions.
"We like to think that not to be is out of the question. We want our calves to be healthy cows for us," Carol Kleppe said.
Attention to detail from the moment a calf arrives is the Kleppes' secret to success. On Day 1, each calf receives colostrum before being vaccinated with Calf Guard and Enforce3, tagged and dehorned with paste. It is then put in a clean calf hut of its own.
Calves are individually bottle fed for the first two months of life.
"One thing I'm a real stickler about: You have to feed milk at 100 degrees exactly - and you better be using a thermometer," Kleppe said.
The Kleppes also pay close attention to the nipples, ensuring the flow is not too fast.
"I think it can cause respiratory problems if the nipple is too big," she said.
When they reach two months of age, calves are switched to pail feeding for the next one to two months. In addition, calves are offered grass hay from Day one, as well as whole oats. Water is offered from Day 1 during the summer months, and at about two months of age in the winter months.
In general, the calves do well outside in the hut, Kleppe said, though calf blankets are used when needed.
"I think, one of the biggest issues with calf huts is they get too hot during the summer months," she said.
To mitigate heat-related problems, the Kleppes put up a small fence out the front of each hut during the summer, or they move the huts under shade.
Calves are weaned at around four months old at the Kleppe farm. At that time, they are sent to a custom heifer raiser.
For the Kleppes, it's the attention to detail that makes their calves thrive.
"We believe our calves are our future. We stress to our employees to take [good] care of our calves," Kleppe said.
Mama knows best
When it comes to raising calves at Cedar Summit Farm in New Prague, Minn., the philosophy is, Mama knows best.
"We raised our calves individually until the early 1990s, then we went to mob feeding until spring of 2006. At that time, we went to letting the cows raise [their calves]," said David Minar.
Minar and his wife milk around 130 cows, raise 130 heifers and around 90 steers on their organic dairy where they also bottle their milk in an on-farm creamery. Not only is seeing the calves at their mothers' sides aesthetically pleasing to customers of Cedar Summit Farm, but it has resulted in better overall calf health. The first year they made the switch to letting the cows raise their calves, the Minars had a zero percent calf mortality rate. Since then, their calf mortality rate has hovered between one and three percent.
"It's a far cry from what it used to be," Minar said. "... The calves are calmer and socially adjusted to people and animals. It's resulted in more herd replacements for us."
In addition, labor costs for calf care are minimal.
"We let the calves do the work," Minar said.
The key to this system is observation, he said. Cows are calved on pasture. The Minars monitor the calves closely to ensure they are nursing. If a calf is not, it is fed frozen colostrum.
When a group of calves is around one month old, the Minars call a vet to their farm to anesthetize the calves, dehorn them with a hot iron and deworm them. At two months old, calves are fitted with a weaning plate in their nose and are released back into the herd for 10 days. After 10 days, the weaning plates are removed. At this time, the calves are sent off the farm to custom calf raisers.
"This isn't for everyone, but it has worked really well for us," Minar said.
Low stress = happy calves
On the Zweber farm near Elko, Minn., low stress makes for happy, healthy calves.
"We want low stress," Lisa Zweber said.
Zweber and her family milk around 100 cows on their organic dairy farm; cows are calved year-round.
Calves are raised in polydome hutches for the first few months of life, where they receive three quarts of milk twice a day via bottle. To ease weather-related stress, each calf is fitted with a calf coat during the winter months, and all the hutches are moved into the shade of a tree line in May for the summer months. Year-round, the hutches are kept clean and dry with ample bedding.
While the Zwebers don't feed any grain to their calves, they do offer hay starting at one week of age.
"The nicest hay goes to the little calves," Zweber said.
From the individual hutches calves are moved to super huts in groups of three or seven.
"The sooner we can get them in group housing the better," Zweber said.
Once placed in a group, the calves are fed via milk bars. Calves remain on milk until they are 3-4 months old.
"As long as we have milk [to feed them] they get milk," Zweber said.
For the Zwebers, these practices - while keeping a low-stress environment - have led to a successful calf-raising system and, ultimately, a healthy crop of calves. [[In-content Ad]]
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