MILWAUKEE, Wis. – Just as no two dairy farms are alike, neither are any two housing facilities.
    Dairy calf and heifer raisers had the opportunity to learn about three very different group housing designs in a producer panel, “Your guide to group housing,” during the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association annual conference April 11 in Milwaukee, Wis.
    “One part of the operation is not any more important than another. … There is no beginning or end on our dairy farm,” said Jim Leick about the importance of managing a strong calf program.
    Leick, co-owner of Night Hawk Dairy in Stratford, Wis., was joined on the panel by Don Jensen of Lawnhurst Farm in Stanley, N.Y., and JC Hammond of North Florida Holsteins in Bell, Fla.
Night Hawk Dairy focuses on cleanliness
    When Leick and his cousins, Chris and Steve, became partners in their 950-cow dairy enterprise, Leick was drawn to the responsibility of raising healthy, productive replacements.
    “I’ve always liked the challenge of calves and heifers, and getting them off to a good start,” he said. “The calves are the future of the herd; you have to have healthy calves to have healthy cows.”
    Each month, Leick raises about 30 calves in 11- by 80-foot group pens.
    Newborn calves receive two gallons of fresh colostrum within the first eight hours of life. After a few days of being fed with a bottle, the calves are moved to the group pens, which contain automatic feeders.
    While managing the calf portion of the dairy has become less labor dependent, those at Night Hawk Dairy are just as busy with the youngstock as they were before the new system was implemented.
    “Now, it’s all about cleaning,” Leick said.
    The pens are bedded twice a week with straw and completely cleaned out and disinfected every two weeks. Each stall and front area where the calves convene are scrubbed twice daily, morning and night.
    The automatic feeders also receive extensive, routine cleaning.  
    On the machines, the nipples are changed out three times a day, and every two weeks hoses are replaced.
    The feeders receive two circuit cleanings in the morning and one at night. In the afternoon, Leick conducts a heat exchanger cleaning and then four automatic bowl cleanings. Every month, the automatic feeders are completely disassembled and rebuilt for inspection and sterilization.
    “We also walk through our pens eight times a day to monitor the calves,” Leick said.
    Following these strict protocols, Leick and his partners are able to raise healthy, productive calves as future replacements for the milking herd.
Lawnhurst Farm adapts housing facilities with growing dairy’s needs
    For 10 years, Lawnhurst Farm housed their calves in individual pens located in a greenhouse facility. However, by 2008, the number of youngstock began outgrowing the facility’s capacity and the dairy was in need of another housing option.
    “It was pretty rudimentary with the places we visited – looking at farm designs and what works best,” Jensen said. “We came up with a hybridization of a barn we thought would be good for the calves and have labor efficiencies.”
    Jensen manages a 1,700-cow dairy located in the Finger Lakes area of New York.
    Lawnhurst Farm has two calf barns, each with eight 14- by 48-foot group pens. The first barn, which was built in 2009, is equipped with a warm room where the bulk tank is located and automatic calf feeders.
    Two years later, Jensen built a second calf barn, which closely mirrored the first.
    “Our neighbor wanted to bring their calves home, which allowed us to fill the barn with our replacements and our neighbor’s,” Jensen said.
    Calves begin in the original greenhouse facility until day 5 when they are moved to the group pens and fed whole milk until day 56.
    Whole milk is collected from the milking herd and then placed in the bulk tank for feeding. The second barn receives the same milk as it is transferred through a pipeline that connects the two barns.
    In an effort to accommodate the growing herd, Jensen also wanted to focus on labor savings when incorporating group housing into the calf portion of the dairy enterprise.
    “You look at the investment in buildings and automatic feeders, but for us, one of the most costly things about raising calves was labor,” Jensen said. “For us, this setup was all about labor efficiency. With the custom-raising aspect and economy of scale, it’s basically the same labor with more calves to dilute our cost.”    

Group housing improves death loss at North Florida Holsteins
    Prior to raising calves in group pens, Hammond was overseeing a calf program that saw 10 percent death loss.
    “In the early 2000s, we were housing calves in elevated crates,” Hammond said. “This caused our people to be bucket washers and milk haulers, and our death loss was entirely too much.”
    Hammond manages a 4,300-cow dairy farm located near the University of Florida.
    Four years ago, North Florida Holsteins converted their housing facility to group pens and allowed the calves to feed on an ad-lib system until 30 days of age. Then, the calves are transitioned to milk replacer and further weaned with automatic feeders.
    Calves begin on one side of the barn with the ad-lib system. They are housed in groups of 15, but move in two groups onto the automatic feeding system, located across the alleyway.
    “We made major changes,” Hammond said. “We designed a barn that reduces the stresses and the labor, and we’ve improved calf health.”
    In addition to providing the calves with more space, Hammond has also re-evaluated the cleaning protocols for feeding equipment.
    “Because the system is all automated, it’s helped a lot with cleanliness,” Hammond said. “It’s been a real game changer for us.”
    By transitioning to group housing and re-evaluating calf-care protocols, Hammond and his team have maintained 1.6 percent death loss over the last six months.
    “Our goal is to take the calf from birth to cow in the most efficient and humane way possible …,” Hammond said.