It is a beautiful February Sunday afternoon, and instead of enjoying the day outside playing with the kids, Joe and I are on the road to look at baby calf ranches in southwest Kansas.
    Our current local calf raisers got burnt out picking up six to 12 newborn calves every day and gave us a month to find a new home for the calves. They were doing a good job with the calves, and they were very competitive on price. But work burn out was written all over their faces. I was a little upset when they told me, but the more I thought about it, the more I understood. They had the equivalent of a 150-cow dairy run by a husband-wife with some part-time help. Every day, every 12 hours, it was chore time for three to four hours.
    Ten days ago, we got the news. Joe and I have been networking trying to find the next best option. I have not raised my own calves since the days of 12 calf hutches between the tree windbreak and the 80-cow tiestall barn. Joe remembers coming outside during the evening milking, and I would tell him how many partial or full 5 gallon buckets of milk replacer to carry out to the calves to feed them. Then, after milking, I would take a flashlight out there to make sure they all drank and looked healthy before I went in the house. In 1991, we had a terrible Halloween blizzard that filled every calf hutch with snow, and after that I used the hutches in warmer weather and a calf building in the winter.
    Numerous baby calf ranches have started business in the last five years in southwest Kansas and the high plains of Texas. Most have acquired bankrupt or empty feedlots and converted them to calf ranches. The warm sun and dry weather is great for baby calves in hutches. We saw one ranch with 20,000 hutches and another with 10,000. When visiting with the owner of one calf ranch, he shared the story of how he got into the business of custom raising calves. For many years, his dad had purchased day-old Holstein bull calves from many large dairies in California. His dad had routes established to pick up these bull calves weekly and deliver them to his calf ranches located in several Southwest states. They made their own milk replacer from semi loads of purchased ingredients, built all their own calf hutches and even poured their own concrete. Things went financially south for them about six years ago when Holstein bull calves were costing $250 and were worth less than what they had paid for them when sold. That is when they decided custom raising heifer calves was a better business model.
    Typically, these calf ranches like to pick up the heifers and the crossbred beef calves from the dairies on their route. The dairy retains ownership of all cattle, and obviously the goal is for the dairy to eventually get back their own bred heifers for replacements. The crossbred beef calves can be sold off the calf ranches at different weights depending on the program they are on. For example, the calf ranch might group a pen of 100 Angus-Holstein steers all weighing between 400-450 pounds and sell them directly to a feedlot in that area. The calf ranch then pays the dairy for the number of steers the dairy had in that pen minus the cost of raising them. The beef packers in the Southwest have kind of stood up and taken notice of the extreme uniformity coming from these cattle week after week and are paying a premium for them.
    Our current calf raiser picks up calves every morning from our dairy. They took our chilled colostrum, pasteurized it and returned it to us in easy 3 quart feeding bags for us to warm up and feed to newborn calves. Now, when we ship calves to Kansas two to three times per week, we need our own pasteurizer along with bottles, nipples and many other things, especially more hot water. It changes our work load from possibly less heifer raising to more baby calf management until they get on the trailer.
    From a dollars and cents point of view, it is about a wash from what we are doing now to what we are looking at. I have done the math on it six ways to Sunday, and every option runs close to $1,700 to get a springing heifer back at the dairy. This includes no cost for the original baby heifer calf. In theory, we would be smarter to breed everything to beef semen and buy $1,200 springing or fresh heifers from the outside market. We do not, however, see that as a good long-term business plan.
    This road trip opened my eyes to how fast the dairy industry has changed in the last five years. I knew it already but to see it in person is totally different. I could also see the high quality of the calves being raised. We walked by thousands of hutches and never heard a coughing calf. The sun is a calf’s friend for sure. Change can bring opportunities, and we hope that is the case here. We have not quite figured out how to handle 4-H show calves for the 16 grandkids when all the calves are in Kansas.
    Vander Kooi operates a 1,800-cow, 4,500 acre farm with his son, Joe, and daughter-in-law, Rita, near Worthington, Minnesota. Send him feedback at davevkooi@icloud.com. Follow him on Instagram, @davevanderkooi.