When I was a young dairy farmer, I always thought the three hardest parts of dairying were getting cows pregnant,  controlling mastitis and raising healthy baby calves. Getting cows pregnant has become easier with ovsynch protocol, tail chalk and cows moving more in a freestall environment verses a tiestall facility. Controlling mastitis has improved greatly with dry cow teat sealant therapy, auto takeoffs in the parlor, and three-time-a-day milking. I’m not convinced anyone has it all figured out when it comes to raising healthy calves, especially in large numbers. About 16 months ago, our baby calf raiser told us he was cutting back and wanted us to find someone else to fill the role. To his credit, he gave us as long as we needed to find a new grower. He and his wife along with a few employees did fairly well raising our calves, mostly in hutches. They also raised calves for several other dairies in the area. During the severe winter of 2017-18, we flooded them with way too many heifer calves. All the work burned them out.  As soon as I heard their plan to cut back, I started looking at other options because I knew it was something I didn’t want to manage.
       The first and last people I talked to were Seth and Kaia, because they were already raising our calves from 8 weeks to 12 months of age. They were definitely interested, so off we went late last winter to tour calf barns and facilities. We knew hutches were the gold standard, but also knew we didn’t want to go that route because of calf raiser burnout. The good part was they needed to build baby calf barns from scratch, and they could build them the way they wanted as long as they had a calf raising contract from us to obtain financing. The one stipulation I wanted in the contract was that only calves from our dairy would be raised there. We worked it out so the Angus cross calves born at our dairy and sold at day one to my daughter, Kia, and her husband, Aaron, would also be started at Seth and Kaia’s. When Seth and I talk on the phone we have to refer to his Kaia, and my Kia, to keep the Ks straight.
    Fast forward to November 2018: the calf barns are built, and we start filling them with calves. The barns are straw bedded, naturally curtain vented cold barns. Each pen is set up for nine calves in group housing with nine headlocks with bottle feeders, an exterior dry feed bunk, and heated automatic waterer in back serving two pens. We fill a pen almost daily, so we use removable individual crates in that new pen for the first five days of their lives. The first fill in the pens went fairly well, but then scours and pneumonia hit.
    Seth and Kaia had also built a separate milk house type building next to the two calf barns. It contains a boiler for hot water, pasteurizer, stainless milk replacer mixing tanks, a bathroom, and large roll up doors for vehicles. They made every effort to do things right and yet things were not going well.
    Kaia started running pre and post bacteria counts on the colostrum going through the pasteurizer. Both were coming back higher than we liked. We went back to the dairy and started changing hoses, inflations, and other things on the fresh cow bucket milkers. We also changed the wash routine for that equipment as colostrum is very hard to remove from rubber and even stainless steel. We power washed the calf receiving pens at the dairy, and alternate them every other day. In between we clean out the straw, disinfect with a special citrus bleach, and put fresh barn lime down on the floor. After all this and a few changes to some valves on their mixing vat, the bacteria counts dropped dramatically, and the calves are doing a lot better. Seth also installed the fresh air tubes in the barns now which should help with the 30-day pneumonia issue.
    Another crazy thing we learned running the bacteria tests on the colostrum was how fast bacteria multiplies in warm milk. Our veterinarian said bacteria doubles every 20 minutes in warm milk. Now we put the colostrum immediately in a freezer, because before when we placed 10 gallons in a refrigerator, it warmed up the whole refrigerator for a few hours.
    We hardly lost any calves, but we had way too much stress, and drug costs were out of line. All of us involved have the same goal to raise strong healthy calves with no antibiotics. I think we are getting there. I just wish there was a cookie cutter formula to raise baby calves.
    Vander Kooi operates a 1,800-cow, 4,500 acre farm with his son, Joe, and daughter-in-law, Rita, near Worthington, Minn. Send him feedback at davevkooi@icloud.com. Follow him on Instagram, @davevanderkooi.