Erin Kenneke takes a blood sample Oct. 27 to test for serum total protein at Meadow Brook Dairy Farms near Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
Erin Kenneke takes a blood sample Oct. 27 to test for serum total protein at Meadow Brook Dairy Farms near Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

    MANITOWOC, Wis. – Understanding the significance of quality calf care and how it impacts the future milking herd is embedded in siblings Beth Gierke, Erin Kenneke and Mitch Kappelman, as well as Erin’s husband, A.J.

    The siblings are the fifth generation to run Meadow Brook Dairy Farms near Manitowoc where they milk 420 cows and farm 1,100 acres. Pete and Shellie Kappelman remain majority owners of the farm, which is managed by their three children and son-in-law. The four members of the younger generation bought into ownership in 2017. Mitch is the herdsman, Erin is in charge of calves, and Beth does bookwork and helps A.J., who is in charge of crops, with fieldwork. A.J. also feeds and does mechanical work.
    Doing lung ultrasounds, feeding higher quantities of colostrum and following rigorous cleaning protocols are recent improvements the farm has made to its calf program. As a result, health and growth rates have improved.
    For the past 1.5 years, the farm has conducted lung ultrasounds to look for pneumonia. Working with Dairy Doctors Veterinary Services, of Plymouth, the procedure has proved beneficial in making early treatment and culling decisions.
    “We haven’t treated a clinical pneumonia case in months,” Erin said. “We’re really careful not to lose growth rate. If a calf is sick enough to go off feed, you don’t get that back. We like to take a preventative approach.”
    Prior to doing ultrasounds, the farm was seeing some pneumonia in 2- to 3-month-old calves.
    “When the weather changed, they would go off feed,” Erin said. “They didn’t look great. Now, we’re catching pneumonia at 3 to 5 weeks. We’re treating early, and they never stop eating.”
    Calves receive one to two ultrasounds, starting near 1 month of age. If the test is positive, a follow-up ultrasound is done to ensure the calf is doing better.
    “It’s a helpful management tool,” Erin said. “If we get high scores on the ultrasound, we can make adjustments within our program.”
    Feeding more colostrum is another practice that has benefitted the farm’s youngstock.
    “We want to give calves as much protection as we can,” Erin said. “We’re very careful about getting in the first gallon of colostrum within two hours, and we focus on that when training new people.”
    Calves receive another half-gallon during the first 24 hours and an additional feeding the next day.
    “We want to give them as much as we can of the good stuff,” Erin said. “By adding that second feeding, we’re seeing a lot of success. The third feeding is a bonus. In following this system, we know calves are getting the energy, nutrients and antibodies they need.”
    The farm tests all colostrum and gives the best quality milk to its heifers. They shoot for a Brix score above 22 but like to feed colostrum with a score over 25, if possible. Blood samples are also taken to test calves’ serum total protein.
    “We’d rather add more tasks than more treatment,” Erin said. “The serum total protein is one more piece of data. The protein is tested on a meter and is a form of checks and balances on our colostrum protocols to see if passive transfer through colostrum has been achieved. If not, we can be quicker to treat with antibiotics.”  
    In 2014, the dairy built four calf barns each with an automatic feeder. Calves are allowed 14 liters of milk per day, but most drink between 10-12 liters or 3.17 gallons daily. Calves are fed pasteurized milk with pasteurized milk balancer. Newborns start out in Calf-Tel pens before moving onto the automated feeder at approximately one week of age. Calves are weaned at 60 days but remain in the same barn for three months. Average daily gain at 65 days is 2.1 pounds. The family started out housing 25 calves per barn but have found 17 calves to be the optimum capacity.
    “We want to make sure a high genomic animal is not the runt of the group,” said Beth, who fed calves before Erin took over. “Even when we housed 20 calves per barn, there was always a runt. But at 17 calves, we have no runts.”  
    Before the automated barns were built, calves were fed in hutches twice a day and bottle fed 2 quarts at each feeding.
    “We didn’t have a lot of death loss, but we’ve gone from a par calf program to right where we want to be,” Erin said. “We have greater consistency.”
    Better cleaning techniques are also making a positive difference on the farm. Using the recommendations of Dr. Donald Sockett, the family follows an all-in, all-out cleaning process using a system of detergent, rinse, acid, rinse, chlorine dioxide and rinse.
    Before returning to the family farm, Mitch, Beth and Erin had to first meet their parents’ requirement of working off the farm for a period of time.   
    “They wanted us to experience what it was like to have weekends off, get paid vacation, a company car, insurance and other benefits before diving into this,” Beth said.
    Beth worked in the marketing department at CP Feeds and also held a variety of part-time jobs before coming back to the farm. Erin worked in the sales department at AgSource. Mitch spent two years at Accelerated Genetics as a herd analyst and sire analyst. A.J. worked for a crop research company in Madison and began working at Meadow Brook Dairy in 2012, followed by Mitch and Beth in 2015, and Erin in 2016.
    “I returned to the farm because I liked the thought of working with my family and being my own boss,” Beth said. “The flexibility of the job and ability to make decisions is what really drew me in. Not needing full-time daycare and being able to bring my kids along sometimes are perks as well.”
    Beth and her sister are working moms whose unwavering dedication to family and farming helps them effectively balance their roles on the dairy with the demands of motherhood. Their children attend the same daycare part time, and Beth and Erin help each other with picking up the kids, supplying diapers and formula, etc.
    Beth and her husband, Greg, have three children: Kenny, 4, Lucy, 2, and Ellie, 3.5 months. Erin and A.J. have two children – Claire, 2.5, and Colton, 9 months. Erin works the early morning shift at the farm, taking care of calves from 4:30-8 a.m. while A.J. is home with the kids. When Erin is done at the farm, she and A.J. swap places. Erin then comes back in the evening to feed calves.
    “There’s an exceptional amount of effort put into our calves before they’re even born,” Erin said. “Decisions about the calves begin a year prior with Mitch’s mating program. A great deal of time and thought is invested into each calf by the time they arrive in the calf barn, and the next two months really determine their future – it’s a crucial time period, and we want to do it right.”
    Beth agreed.
    “Mitch has created a lot of value for the farm through his Brown Swiss embryos and genomics,” Beth said. “A great deal is riding on these animals’ futures, and we need to get them to the milking herd successfully.”
    The farm focuses on health traits and does genomic testing on all animals. A sharp focus on calf health and growth works hand in hand with nurturing the dairy’s elite genetics.
    “We like doing things the best way and the right way all the time on all areas of the farm,” Erin said. “With our farm’s genetic program, we have to do a good job in the calf barn. We can’t lose an expensive animal.”