Calves socialize in the Muellers’ calf barn at the dairy near Melrose, Minnesota. The barn includes four pens – two with automated calf feeders and two for weaned calves up to 6 months old.
Calves socialize in the Muellers’ calf barn at the dairy near Melrose, Minnesota. The barn includes four pens – two with automated calf feeders and two for weaned calves up to 6 months old. PHOTO BY MARK KLAPHAKE

    MELROSE, Minn. – In a few short weeks, Jamie and Shannon Mueller will be calving in their first heifer that was born and raised through weaning in their dairy farm’s calf facility.
    “I’m really looking forward to that; it’s exciting,” Jamie said.

    After many years of having calves raised off-site, in 2018 the Muellers built a group-housing facility that accommodates the entire youngstock herd from birth to 6 months at their 170-cow farm in Stearns County near Melrose.
    The tunnel-ventilated barn, which stands at 112 feet by 36 feet, is equipped with space for seven calves in individual hutches. Those animals are fed by bottle twice a day until they are about 1 week old. Then, they relocate to a group pen of 10 to 15 animals that are fed with an automatic calf feeder. Another group pen on an automatic calf feeder is available for older calves still on milk. After the calves are weaned, they are moved to one of two pens at the end of the barn, where they remain until 6 months old.
    At 6 months of age, the youngstock are sent to a heifer grower where they stay until one to two months prior to calving.
    “Our heifer grower is really happy with how they’re coming to him,” said Kaylyn, the Muellers’ daughter.
    Kaylyn oversees calf management on the farm with Shannon. She returned to the family business three years ago when more attention to the youngstock was needed.
    “Our calf grower was retiring, and we had to decide what to do,” Shannon said. “When he first stopped, we raised our calves in hutches for about a year and that’s when we knew we wanted a calf barn.”
    Although the Muellers knew they needed a youngstock facility to accommodate the influx of calves, it took the family a long while and several barn tours before finding a design that would work best for their farm.
    They spoke with farmers who had implemented both individual hutches and group housing, weighing the costs and benefits of each setup.
    “We talked about the troubles with both,” Shannon said. “We decided calf feeders were better for us because of the time efficiency.”
    Kaylyn agreed.
    “There’s more flexibility with the automatic feeders,” she said. “If we get behind in milking or another task on the farm, the calves are still getting fed even if we’re not here.”
    While the barn has one milk room that includes the two automatic feeders, there is room for an additional four feeders.
    The Muellers began construction on their facility during the fall of 2018, with the first few calves introduced to the feeders in December 2018.
    “I think we had three on the feeder when we first started,” Kaylyn said. “We had so many older ones in hutches that were already weaned.”
    By spring 2018, the Muellers had their calf barn full of youngstock.
    “We’ve really been pleased with how they’re growing,” Kaylyn said. “They look healthy, and they are healthy.”
    Since Kaylyn’s return home, she has taken on the responsibility of calf care, not only daily feeding but also record keeping and vaccinating.
    The new facility has made her job easier.
    She feeds the calves in individual hutches until they readily recognize the bottle. Kaylyn then transitions the animals to the group pens, pushing them to the automatic feeder usually only once before they understand the new way of getting milk.
    The feeders are designed to feed milk replacer up to four times in 24 hours.
    Each group pen has head gates with three of the pens capable of locking for Kaylyn to easily vaccinate and evaluate the animals.
    “Kaylyn is really detailed in our calf records,” Shannon said. “With good records, we feel we know the history of the calf and how that could affect her future production. That helps us make decisions on future culling.”
    The barn’s design also makes moving calves seamless, and cleaning the pens can be a one-person job with gates secluding the animals and opening up the pens for the skidloader to maneuver through.
    Two 48-inch fans on the north end of the barn and a single tube running through the barn helps regulate the temperature. In the wintertime, the youngest calves wear calf jackets, although the temperature has not dipped below 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
    While the Muellers went through a steep learning curve of having to care for their youngstock, and in a new facility nonetheless, they adapted by taking in educational seminars on calf care and being patient through the transition of designing and building a functional structure.
    “I’ve been here 27 years and so many things have changed. I never would’ve thought back then that someday we’d be using automatic feeders to care for our calves,” Shannon said. “It was a lot at the time, but everything’s fallen into place.”
    In the future, the Muellers would like to have the housing capacity to raise all of their animals on site. They have seen the results of the first-calf heifers that were raised in hutches on their farm during the year of transition and are eager to see more results of closer herd management.
    “We spent a lot of time looking at our options,” Shannon said. “In the end, we feel we’ve made the right decision.”