Hanna Hebig explains the cleaning and sanitation process for all calf feeding equipment during a University of Minnesota Extension Dairy Field Day July 19 at the calf site near Swanville, Minn.
Hanna Hebig explains the cleaning and sanitation process for all calf feeding equipment during a University of Minnesota Extension Dairy Field Day July 19 at the calf site near Swanville, Minn. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE
    SWANVILLE, Minn. – Calves at Rainbow Acres LLC have never been healthier. With a facility designed for optimum calf care and a management protocol followed religiously, the Van Heel family is raising calves that are larger and have fewer health problems throughout their entire life on the farm.
    “We’ve changed the design of the calf facility, with less calves in each pen, and have re-evaluated our vaccine protocols to administer less,” Katie Van Heel said. “I’m still in shock with what we’ve seen and often think, ‘How is this possible?’”
    Katie is the calf manager at her in-laws’ dairy, where they milk 1,100 cows and raise all of their replacement heifers, in Morrison County near Swanville, Minn.
    David Van Heel and his family hosted a University of Minnesota Extension Dairy Field Day July 19 to demonstrate how they set up their calves for lifelong success.
    “With today’s setup, we have the best calves we’ve ever had,” David said.
    The calves are born at the main farm site where they are monitored for 24 hours or less.
    During this time, each calf receives two vaccines for scours prevention before their first feeding of 1 gallon of pasteurized colostrum, which is tubed. The calves are also tagged and receive a naval dip.
    Once daily, an employee moves the newborn calves to the calf-raising site, located a few miles from the main farm site.
    At the calf facility, the nursery room houses calves in individual pens until they are 7-10 days old. From there, they are transferred to group pens and fed with automatic calf feeders.
    The calves are weaned from the feeders at 42 days.
    “We used to raise calves in hutches,” David said. “Then, we had a custom raiser and then went back to doing it ourselves. The whole thing was expensive and stressful on the calves, which was difficult to justify.”
    At a time when the Van Heels were contemplating a new system for their calves, the current facility was for sale.
    In 2008, David purchased the building, which was a former chicken barn, and remodeled it into the farm’s calf-raising facility.
    Three years ago, the family also built a naturally-ventilated group housing barn for weaned calves, which sits adjacent to the remodeled structure.
    While the tour encompassed the entire calf-raising site, it was mostly tailored to the remodeled facility.
    At the north end of the barn, two bulk tanks are hooked up to a pasteurizer. The milk is transferred throughout the barn using a pipeline system.
    “We bring whole milk over from the farm twice a day using a portable tank and pasteurize it,” Katie said.
    The nursery includes 56 small individual stalls.
    “We have calves in stalls that were born recently, but then we also have larger stalls for calves that aren’t catching on to the [automatic] feeders,” said Hanna Hebig, Katie’s co-manager.
    The calves are moved into group pens once they can feed off bottles without any assistance. At this time, they also receive another round of vaccinations.
    When the Van Heels first implemented automatic calf feeders 10 years ago, they began with three feeders and six pens, and three weaning pens, with 25 calves to a pen.
    Now, the barn includes five feeders and 10 pens, and one weaning pen. Each pen contains 18-20 calves.
    “We aren’t overcrowding,” Katie said. “My optimal number is 18, but we can get by with 20 in a pen. You just have to watch them more closely the larger the group is. The calves are doing phenomenal without so much competition. They look beautiful.”
    Calves enter the group pens and receive assistance using the automatic calf feeders. Once it is clear the calf is adequately feeding, milk consumption increases to 9 liters.
    The animals remain at 9 liters of milk for 22 days.
    “We want them to spend as much time as possible at 9 liters,” Katie said. “Our goal is to get them drinking more milk and eating more grain.”
    At the time of weaning, calves receive one more vaccination while at the calf-raising site.
    “We changed our vaccination protocols, thereby saving vaccine and labor costs,” Katie said.
    The Van Heels are also particular on cleanliness – both in the living environment and the equipment used to feed the calves.
    “We’ve been really big on sanitation and it’s made a night and day difference on the calves,” Katie said.
    Bottles, nipples and automated equipment is thoroughly disinfected daily.
    Likewise, when calves leave the individual or group pens, the housing site is cleaned and sanitized before moving new animals in.
    “We significantly reduced the number of calves we treat for respiratory by catching sick calves earlier,” Katie said. “Our death loss was higher, but is now at 1-2 percent.”
    To further prevent illness, the Van Heels use electrolytes if a calf is not drinking and walk the pens daily to monitor the health of the animals.
    “Working with calf feeders can be stressful because it’s a different kind of management,” Katie said. “You have to know the calves and know what to look for on the computer.”
    Overall, the calf-raising site has been more than beneficial for Rainbow Acres LLC.  
    “The facility produces large calves and thereby allows us to breed heifers at 11 to 12 months,” David said. “Over the last 10 years, many changes have been made to this facility allowing it to be very successful.”