Calves start out in individual pens and are then paired up with another calf at 4 weeks of age for the Schleis family near Kewaunee, Wisconsin. 
Calves start out in individual pens and are then paired up with another calf at 4 weeks of age for the Schleis family near Kewaunee, Wisconsin. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART

    KEWAUNEE, Wis. – The Schleis family never expected to build a new calf barn six years after building their previous facility. But on a bitterly cold January night in 2019, the farm met disaster head on. Their calf barn built in 2013 burnt to the ground from unknown causes. The blaze spared nothing, leaving the structure in ruins and taking the lives of 130 calves.

    “It was 20 degrees below zero that night with a 30 to 40 mph wind, and the smoke was blowing bad,” said Steve Schleis.
    Steve farms with his brother, Marvin, his son, Ryan, and his daughter-in-law, Tasha. Marvin’s 16-year-old daughter, Taylor, also works on the farm. Steve’s wife, Denise, works at the local post office, and Marvin’s wife, Julie, works for a company that manufactures stainless steel hydraulic lines. Ryan and Tasha have three children who also help on the farm – Cadence, 9, Killian, 5, and Ainsley, 3. Steve and Denise also have a son, Tyler, who is a prison guard. He and his wife, Lonnie, have two children – Madison, 12, and Zander, 7.
    Both Steve and Ryan have served on the fire department for many years and assisted in fighting the fire that night.
    “We could see the flames over the treetops from where we live a mile and a half away,” Tasha said.
    The weather showed no mercy in the days to follow as it dug even deeper into below zero temperatures, and all the water used to fight the fire froze solid until April. As life marched on, new calves entered the world shortly after the fire. The first ones born were named Phoenix and Ashes. Filled with a determined spirit, the Schleis family picked up the pieces and started over.
    “The community came forward to help us,” Tasha said. “Farms lent us their hutches. Calf jackets and other items would just show up at our farm. Our feed company knew we needed stuff to feed calves and sent us things free of charge. A lot of companies really helped us.”
    Construction on the farm’s new 66-by-222 calf barn began that July, and calves moved into the building in October. The barn houses 190 calves from birth to 16 weeks.
    “We built in the same spot, and it’s almost identical to the first barn,” Steve said. “We just changed the layout a little and added a couple new features. The new barn is also slightly longer.”  
    Schleis Farms was established in 1916 and is home to 440 cows milking and dry. The herd is 80% Fleckvieh – a breed Tasha introduced to the farm after doing an internship at a bull stud in Germany in 2006. Studying the economic value of the breed, she wrote a paper discussing her findings, which sparked Ryan’s interest. The Schleises started breeding their Holsteins to Fleckvieh in 2008.
    “Fleckvieh come in every shade of black, white, brown and red, and in every hair texture,” Ryan said. “Some have tight curls on their whole body.”  
    When building their new calf barn, the Schleises added a wash bay and more storage for feed and bedding. They also installed a dishwasher for washing and sanitizing milk bottles and water buckets and changed the lighting to LED. Changes in housing and feeding styles took place as well as the Schleises switched from group housing and bucket feeding to individual housing and bottle feeding after lessons learned in the previous barn.
    “We have Salmonella Dublin on our farm,” Tasha said. “It affects calves, not cows or older heifers. At 5-15 days old, it suppresses the immune system so much that calves get pneumonia and become septic. Fleckvieh are very aggressive drinkers on buckets. They put their whole nose in the pail and drink so fast they aspirate the milk, which made this problem worse.”  
    Before switching feeding protocols, death loss was high at 22%. Now, the death loss for calves age 0-11 months is 1.8%.
    Calves are fed milk replacer three times a day. From birth to 7 days, calves receive 2 quarts of milk per feeding. At 7-14 days, they get 3 quarts per feeding, and by 14 days, calves are drinking a total of 3 gallons of milk daily, receiving 1 gallon at each feeding.  
    “We follow an aggressive feeding schedule,” said Tasha, who is in charge of calves.
    Big calves skip to 1 gallon per feeding from the beginning, and everyone is bottle fed. Calves start out in individual pens and are buddied up at 4 weeks.
    “They wean better, and grain intake improves,” Tasha said. “It creates competition, but the calves are also more curious. We usually pair them up, but sometimes we’ll do a group of three. With the buddy system, we don’t see a knockback at weaning time.”
    The Schleis family practices a stepdown weaning approach, moving calves from 1 gallon of milk down to 3 quarts and pulling away one feeding each week. Tasha said calves must be at least 5 weeks old before a reduction in milk begins. Calves remain in hutches for one week after being weaned. Calves are weighed in and weighed out with the average daily gain for this age group at 2.1 pounds. Weaned animals are housed eight to 10 animals per pen with pens measuring 24 feet wide by about 18 feet long. Average daily gain for this group is 2.8 to 2.9 pounds.
    “We work closely with our nutritionist and vet and really try to maximize growth during the first 16 weeks to get the biggest bang for our buck,” Tasha said.  
    Another modification to the new barn was air ventilation tube style and location. Tubes are now placed above the calves, and one more row of tubes was added. The flap duct system is dictated by temperature to provide the optimum in winter and summer air. The barn features a two-piece curtain system in which the top curtain rolls down, and the bottom curtain rolls up. If it starts raining, curtains close automatically.
    “We have less flies in by the calves during the summer, and calves also stay drier in the summertime,” Tasha said.
    Hutches are steam-cleaned between calves, and a washroom for hutches was another new feature the Schleises added. Newborn calves start out in the washroom – a warm place to give colostrum and dip the navel. Once dry, calves are moved to the main facility.
    The Schleises said they are seeing less pneumonia as a result of individual housing, the use of bottles, a better feeding program and a more effective air tube system.
    Turning a tragedy into new opportunities for improvement, the Schleis family is happy in their new calf barn, finding it even better than the first.