The NexGen: Adventures of two dairy daughters

The power of passion, purpose, pairs

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Recently, we have been discussing goals, one of which is to focus on calf health, specifically pneumonia, in our calves during the first 100 days of age.

Anyone who has ever worked with dairy farms that raise replacements understands the challenges that arise during the first few months of life, more specifically, respiratory challenges. It is especially frustrating because the lungs, once affected, are never the same. Numerous research trials have demonstrated the costs of a case of pneumonia as it relates to the cost of decreased milk production during lactation, increased age at first calving, increased risk of leaving the herd and subsequent risk for additional cases of disease. With tight margins and the increased expense of heifer-rearing programs, mitigating respiratory disease and ensuring high-quality springers enter the milking herd are paramount.

If you are unfamiliar with our dairy farm, our calf housing system is slightly different than most. We background our Jersey calves in huts for the first few weeks of age, then they move into a group-housed, but individually fed monoslope calf barn.

The groups in this building consist of six calves fed in headlocks with a bottle holder attached. Our calf huts are a conglomeration of all brands that have been acquired over the years, with cattle panels attached to the fronts, bent in a “U” shape to allow for free outdoor access.

Historically, our calves were raised through weaning in calf huts, as they are on many dairies, for the perceived health benefits and ease of identification of illness. However, our industry is changing, and there are new considerations to take into effect, such as calf socialization, labor costs, the effects of stress on immunity and growth, and also consumer perceptions of individual calf housing.

The stress on calves is often overlooked. Two common stress points in calf programs are weaning and commingling. Our calves are moved into group pens weeks before weaning, and that transition occurs smoothly for us in our calf barn. However, our pinch point was when calves entered our calf barn, moving from individual huts to their first small group of six.

When everything else in a management program seems to be right where it needs to be, creative ideas and potential solutions need to be developed to remove bottlenecks to success. Calves are extremely social creatures, and commingling can be stressful. Therefore, we decided to experiment with pair housing in calf huts before commingling. Calves would then no longer face the stress of commingling alone. The effect on reducing stress and, therefore, our incidence of pneumonia that this one change has made to our calf program is incredible.

If you have ever considered the pairing process, it is extremely simple.

We pair at about 14 days, ensuring that both calves are healthy, drinking at a similar rate and about the same age. It is also best to try to pair calves earlier in life than later, within a few weeks of age, ensuring that they each have 35 square feet of space.

To pair them, we open our two calf panels, each on the nearest side to the subsequent hut, and use a snap to clip the panels together, creating a larger “U” shape. We then place a poly door from our calf huts across the gap between the two huts.

A major observation is that paired calves always lay together in the same hut; however, they will return to their separate huts when bottles are placed for feeding without any guidance from calf feeders. Calves also consume starters much earlier and in larger quantities when paired versus when they were raised individually. Cattle are social eaters. Eating calf starter is critical for rumen development and a successful transition through the weaning period, not to mention the increases in average daily gains.

To minimize cross-sucking, calves need to be fed at a higher rate than 2 quarts. We feed our Jerseys 3 quarts of pasteurized waste milk, but higher levels could be fed for larger calves. Bottle rather than pail feeding is another recommendation, including the length of time bottles remain in holders. We leave all our bottles in holders until all the calves have emptied them. This allows dominant calves to continue sucking on nipples after milk has been consumed, allowing time for feelings of satiety and fatigue.

Now, more than ever, our dairy industry is being challenged with financial efficiency, sustainability and animal care. All areas of the dairy are being considered, especially heifer-rearing programs. Heifers are expensive to raise, and returning healthy springers to the dairy is critical to success in the milking herd. Also, now more than ever, we are faced with increasing consumer pressures to ensure our cattle can socialize with each other and express natural behaviors.

The addition of pair raising to our calf program is a key management strategy that we now use on our dairy that has almost zero cost, minimizes a critical stress pinch point and is preparing our dairy to move into the next generation of dairy farming.

Megan Schrupp and Ellen Stenger are sisters and co-owners of both NexGen Dairy and NexGen Market in Eden Valley, Minnesota. They can be reached at [email protected].

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