KEWAUNEE, Wis. — Located 3 miles from Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy is the facility where all of the farm’s youngstock are raised. At this specialized site, heifers spend their first year of life. These animals are the future of Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, which milks 6,000 cows on three sites near Kewaunee.
“We’ve grown a lot in the last 15 years,” said Shawn Miller, calf manager.
The calf facility houses 3,650 heifers — from 1 day old to 11.5 months — in 23 calf barns, five bed-pack barns and two freestall barns. There are 900 calves on milk.
“Everything is pail trained here; there are no bottles,” Miller said. “With pails, there is more refusal the first day or two, but calves catch on pretty quick.”
Waste milk is transferred from the dairy twice a day then pasteurized and mixed with a fortifier blend. After pasteurization, milk is sent to a holding tank before being distributed into carts for delivery.
For the first two days, calves receive 2 quarts of milk. Day three through 13, calves are fed 2.5 quarts, and day 14 to 42, they receive 3.5 quarts. In wintertime, the oldest calves are bumped up by an extra pint in both the morning and evening feedings to provide additional energy. By day 43, calves are fed once a day, and by day 50, they are on water only and paired with another calf. Between days 60 and 70, calves move into a bed-pack barn. Calves are weighed before moving on to each new barn.
“We don’t promote as much milk as some people, and we move calves along pretty quickly,” Miller said. “We also look for good starter intake.”
Grain is fed twice a day. For the first 21 days, it is done by hand, and after day 21, grain is distributed by a cart. Calves are also given fresh water.
“We only give them what they can drink — we don’t fill the pail full,” Miller said. “We try to do everything as needed.”
Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy is a Holstein-Jersey crossbred herd, and the average daily gain for calves on milk is 1.6 to 2 pounds.
Each calf barn contains 60 pens. Workers use a chlorine dioxide solution to clean their boots every time before entering a hutch in the barns that hold the youngest calves. They also wear single-use gloves for each calf. Ear tags are used to record all details about the calf’s care and any events in its life.
All calves are weighed at birth, fed colostrum and tagged before coming to the calf facility. Calves are fed one feeding of colostrum, receiving 1 gallon at birth. Miller said they are considering adding a second feeding to increase immunoglobulin and serum protein levels.
“We make sure all calves get a quality colostrum and not a supplement,” Miller said. “ However, if we don’t have adequate colostrum or a colostrum with a Brix score of over 22, we will use a supplement. We are going to start pasteurizing colostrum soon to ensure it is clean going to the calves.”
Calves are picked up from the dairy twice a day by two staff members, and the people picking up switch daily. Miller said this ensures interaction between everybody and saves on possible injuries.
“There is constant communication between my staff and the maternity staff,” Miller said. “The herd manager and I and other managers at the dairy have a weekly meeting so everyone knows what’s going on.”
The calf facility has a warming room that is typically used for only the smallest members of the herd.
“When we get some really small calves in the winter with not a lot of fat on them, we put them in here for a few days,” Miller said. “Or if a calf is a little sick, we’ll bring them in here too.”
Starting at the end of November, calves wear jackets for added warmth. Newer calf barns feature a split-curtain design that Miller said provides opportunities to change the ventilation. Ventilation tubes located above both rows of calf pens provide a 4-mph wind to keep calves cool and reduce flies.
All calf barn interiors are disassembled before moving in a group of calves. Pens are washed with a pressure washer and sanitized with chlorine dioxide. The barn floor is also sanitized.
When it is time to leave the calf barn, calves are moved to bed-pack barns where they are housed in groups of 11. The newest bed-pack barn features a split-curtain design and insulated roof.
“When building a new barn, we always want to ask what things can we do to make it a little better than what we currently have,” Miller said. “The lighting in here is substantially better than in the rest of our barns.”
Calves in bed-pack barns receive the same starter as wet calves for one week before transitioning to a total mixed ration that is top-dressed for two weeks. By the third week, calves are fed only a TMR.
Heifers move into a freestall barn between 4 to 5 months of age. At 11.5 months, they are sent to another Pagel’s Ponderosa facility in Coleman.
Miller and his staff are diligent about monitoring calf health. As a result, the farm’s mortality rate averages between 0.5% to 1%. Treatment rates on the farm are at 20% for respiratory illness and 15% to 30% for scours.
Oral electrolytes or IV fluids are given to combat scours. One staff member walks the barns every morning to check calves from 1 day old to 21 days of age, looking for signs of dehydration and scours and deciding if they will give a calf electrolytes or milk.
“We are very proactive with scours, and anywhere from three to 10 calves receive electrolytes every day,” Miller said. “Rarely do we treat scours with antibiotics. Instead, we go heavy on electrolytes and will hold milk for one feeding.”
The calf and heifer facility has 18 full-time employees. Staff training is ongoing, and Miller said they make sure to explain the reasoning behind what they do.
“We really focus on the whys so that people understand why we’re doing the things that we’re doing,” Miller said. “We also share info with employees about what’s going on with calves as far as treatment rates, average daily gain and so on. That’s talked about on a weekly basis.”
With help from a hands-on team, Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy is dedicated to producing robust calves that will one day be productive cows.
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