NexGen effectively feeds calves in group housing

Headlock system reduces labor, heightens calf health


EDEN VALLEY, Minn. – Since the establishment of NexGen Dairy in 2016, the families have worked to make their days as efficient and productive as possible, for themselves and the cows.
One way to address that was constructing a barn that would house their pre-weaned calves in group pens.

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“After touring sites, we knew this is what we wanted,” Brandon Stenger said. “With this setup, it only takes us 45 minutes to feed all the calves on the farm, and it’s easy to lock up the calves for vaccinations.”
Stenger and his wife, Ellen, are partners at NexGen Dairy near Eden Valley. Together, the Stengers and Ellen’s family – sister and brother-in-law, Megan and Tim Schrupp; and parents, Vern and Mary Kay Becker – milk 700 cows and raise their replacements on site or nearby. They are exclusively using sexed Jersey and beef semen to elevate the herd.
The calf facility, built in 2018, was the focal point of a farmer-to-farmer tour of group calf facilities hosted by Minnesota Dairy Initiative July 7 near Eden Valley.
The structure is a 27-foot-high monoslope barn with natural ventilation and equipped with individual headlocks and bottle holders for every animal. Each pen holds six calves, for a total of 120 youngstock – from 4 weeks of age to 16 weeks – housed in the barn.
To facilitate socialization but not hinder performance, two pens are positioned alongside each other with gates and then a solid panel separates those two pens from the following two.
Calves receive a free-choice 18% starter feed and water throughout the day, and the older calves are also given dry hay.
“With the Jerseys, we’ve seen feed intake in this barn go up,” Megan Schrupp said. “Our daily gain has been about 1.5 to 1.6 pounds per calf per day. They’re doing really well.”
Overall calf wellbeing has improved too.
The barn includes two tunnels and four exhaust fans along the peak of the structure to maximize airflow and air quality at the calf level. Each pen provides 38 square feet per calf, and the tall design allows for optimum shading of the pens during the summer months and ample sunlight during the dead of winter.
“Maybe the only thing I’d change in here is to make the pens wider,” Schrupp said. “It’s all about square feet per calf, and the more space, the better.”
When calves are born, they are moved from the maternity area to individual calf pens alongside the hospital parlor and calf feeding room. There, the calves receive 1 gallon of pasteurized colostrum, dehorning paste is applied, and their vaccine program begins with an intranasal vaccine.
The colostrum is tested on the Brix scale with NexGen aiming for a sugar content upward of 22%. Schrupp estimated 80% of colostrum collected meets their benchmark. Milk less than that is fed to the calves for beef while the higher quality colostrum is given to the replacement heifers.
“If we do need higher quality colostrum, we pull a bag that we pasteurized and stored earlier,” Schrupp said.
Once in stable conditions, the calves are relocated to individual calf hutches on the northeast side of the farm. Those calves remain there for about one month then are moved to the group pens.
“We move them as soon as we are able,” Stenger said. “The individual hutches give them a good start.”
Schrupp agreed.
“When the calf barn was first ready, we put the calves in here right away instead of the hutches,” she said. “But we realized if we give them a little time by themselves, that two-week scouring period is in the clear, and those newborns don’t struggle as much with the bottles.”
In the calf barn, calves are housed within the same group for the duration of their stay. Stenger feeds the youngstock twice a day; 2-quart bottles for the younger animals and 3-quart bottles for the older ones until they begin weaning at 8 weeks of age.
Every calf is fed whole milk on the farm from fresh and hospital cows.  
“We rarely have to use milk replacer,” Schrupp said. “We want the calves on whole milk for the whole time until weaning. That’s been key.”
On average, post-fresh cows will be milked through the hospital pen for five days and then moved in with the rest of the lactating herd. However, depending on the demand for whole milk to feed the calves, cows may stay longer in the maternity area of the farm.  
“I’m prejudice to feeding whole milk,” Vern Becker said. “It’s just so much better for the calves.”
In the group pens, calves are constrained to the headlocks during feeding and for about 10 minutes after to reduce sucking. It also allows further vaccinations to happen at that time.
The pens are cleaned out once a week, and some soiled bedding is repurposed as bedding for older heifers in a dry lot. There is also a drain tile buried beneath the building that helps capture excess moisture.
Creating a calf facility such as this has always been top of mind for the partners of NexGen Dairy.
“When my dad and uncle split the dairy, there was no calf area on this farm,” Schrupp said. “We knew we had to add that here.”
Similar facilities are being constructed for older youngstock to accomplish the dairy’s goal of raising all their replacements on site.  


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