A calf drinks from one of the automated calf feeders at the Capkos’ dairy May 17 near Swanville, Minnesota. Calves are grouped in pens of up to 20. 
A calf drinks from one of the automated calf feeders at the Capkos’ dairy May 17 near Swanville, Minnesota. Calves are grouped in pens of up to 20. PHOTO BY MARK KLAPHAKE

    SWANVILLE, Minn. – Jared Capko and Renee Hebig can describe their calf-raising facility in three words: Clean, convenient and efficient.
    “We did all of this for healthy calves,” Capko said. “Our death loss is down, and these calves are healthier when they leave this barn.”

    In the second half of 2020, Capko and his family built a 128-by-60 tunnel-ventilated calf barn equipped with four group pens fed with two automatic feeders and 20 individual hutches. Capko milks 300 cows with his dad, Jerry, and uncle, Larry, in Morrison County near Swanville.
    The family put calves in the barn last November.
    “We’re getting that consistency now,” said Hebig, calf manager. “We’ve created a system that lets everyone be self-sufficient here, and we’re watching calves succeed.”
    A feed room is in the center of the barn with individual calf hutches in the middle on the north and south sides of the room. To the east and west are two sets of group pens that are fed with Holm and Laue Calf Experts. A set of three calf hutches are set aside and used for sick calves or those that do not adapt to the automated feeders well.
    The barn also includes sloped flooring throughout with trench drains below each pen to remove excess moisture as well as fans and side curtains to improve ventilation.
    Newborn calves are kept in hutches for the first two weeks and then transferred to the group pens until weaned, with pens designed to house 20 animals each. All youngstock in the barn receive free-choice grain and water.
    Hebig oversees this group of youngstock on the farm and works closely with three employs to maintain detailed records of each animal. Calves are monitored through the automated feeder’s computer program which Hebig can look up on her phone, and also tracked with vaccinations and health occurrences via an intricate chart Hebig designed in the feed room.
    “Our protocol is laid out so it is convenient for everyone,” Hebig said. “We found a way to make calf chores consistent for everybody.”
    Previously, the Capkos were housing the calves in a naturally-ventilated dirt-floor barn and feeding with one automated calf feeder. There were 11 individual hutches near the farm’s maternity and sick cow pen for background calves, and an overflow of youngstock were housed in hutches in the nearby hay shed.  
    The overstocked pens and poor ventilation made it difficult for calves to thrive, said Capko.
    “We were seeing so many lung issues,” he said. “If the calves made it out (of the barn), they had lost a lot of spunk.”
    In January 2020, the Capkos began plans for a new facility after touring several farms and researching designs.
    “We talked about cementing this area and use hutches for now, but we really wanted an elaborate floor plan,” Capko said. “For us, ventilation was a big thing, and we wanted everyone in one place. Before, everything was so spread out, and we were running out of room.”
    By June, Hebig had joined the operation on a more full-time basis. She was previously a teacher in the Twin Cities area but decided with the influx of the coronavirus pandemic that she could be on the farm more often.
    Calves were then housed in a hoop barn at Capko and Hebig’s farm site, and management of the youngstock shifted from Capko’s relatives to Hebig.
    “Having Renee come to the farm really took the stress off everybody else,” Capko said. “It was a lot to take care of and it was frustrating because we were either all doing it or missing it. This way, Renee could be the one to focus on the calves.”
    And, raising the youngstock in the hoop barn was a good transition between old and new facilities.
    “It was a good experience to be raising healthy calves,” Hebig said. “We are now getting ready to breed heifer twins that we started in the hoop barn. It’s cool to see them doing well and succeeding.”
    While the Capkos’ setup has put a renewed focus on calf health and wellbeing, they know their success in raising youngstock would not be possible without the work of the people caring for the animals.
    “We knew to feed in hutches is healthier for the calves, but we didn’t know if we could keep our hired help if we went that route,” Capko said. “And, there’s more time put into management that way and that’s hard to do even with the right setup.”
    In less than a year, the Capko family has transformed their calf management with the use of automation and more detailed protocols.  
    “People think once you put in robots, all the work is gone,” Hebig said. “The work is always there, but robots give you flexibility. We wouldn’t have the strong, healthy calves we have now without that.”