Participants at the recent pre-Empire Farm Days “Dairy Calf Intensively Managed Housing/Feeding System Tour” were treated to an inside look at two different dairy calf housing systems, both on Wyoming County, New York, dairy farms. Speakers included the farmers themselves, along with Curt Gooch, Cornell PRO-DAIRY, as well as Fernando Soberon, Ruminant Technical Services Manager with Shur-Gain.

According to Gooch,  26 percent of the overall costs of raising a replacement heifer on the dairy farm is incurred during the pre-weaning phase. The goal in all calf barns is to fulfill the basic needs of the calves, including: “clean, dry and comfortable bedding; really good nutrition; pathogen control; and adequate, draft-free ventilation,” he said. Other objectives are to provide free access to clean water, and ongoing individual observation by the caretaker.

Synergy Genetics

The two fabric-covered steel arch constructed calf facilities at Synergy Genetics, LLC each house 66 calves and measure 36 feet wide by 150 feet long by 12 feet high. The structures are mechanically ventilated with state-of-the-art neutral pressure ventilation systems, designed by Gooch. The goal is to have as much ventilation as possible, without any drafts on the calves. Getting ventilation to the calf nose zone is key to optimal health. Outside air comes into the barn, mixes with barn air – including contaminants – and then is exhausted out. All areas of the barn need uniform, adequate ventilation, he said.

The barns are designed with side wall ducts and an overhead tubing system with fans at both ends. A center floor below-grade, negative pressure air duct discharges air from the barn. Sidewall curtains and end doors also work within the system to properly ventilate the barn during the five various zone settings which operate automatically depending upon outside temperatures.

Individually housed calf stalls are four feet by eight feet, with solid side walls. Calves are bedded gravel with tile drainage below each pen, which drains to an outside storage tank. Gravel is lined with black fabric, and topped with wood shavings for bedding. Straw is added during winter months.

Feeding is three times per day of pasteurized milk from the Jersey cows at Synergy Farm, and weaning occurs at eight weeks of age. Calves are also provided free choice water and starter grain while on milk. Incremental increases from two quarts per day of milk for newborns, to 12 quarts per day just prior to weaning, are implemented.

True Farms: An Alternate System

True Farms switched from individual pens to group housing, and added automated feeders. This reduced their labor needs in the calf barn from 2.5 full time workers with 170 individual hutches, to 1.5 full time workers caring for six pens of 20 calves, grouped by age, plus a small amount of individual calf pens without automated feeding. The new calf facility here is naturally ventilated, with drainage grates in all pens. Pens are bedded with wood shavings over straw.

The new facility has power chimneys, plus supplemental side wall fans, along with curtains, to help control the ventilation. The calf pens were built along one side wall, a design which helps to increase ventilation in the pens. Respiratory illnesses are a concern, and the new barn has provided some improvement, Jeff True said.

The change to an automated feeding system has not presented any problems. They are feeding milk replacer, and wean at 60 days. They have the ability to program the feeders for the needs of each individual calf, and are able to collect data from the system to monitor intake patterns and growth. Each of their three DeLaval CF1000 feeder serves two pens.

Not matter the feeding system, weaning is best done with a “two steps down” program, with 10 days between changes. Soberon recommends a “drastic” change of about five liters of milk or replacer per day, beginning at 45 days.  “Let them know that something is different,” Soberon said.

Assessing Needs

Each dairy owner will have to weigh the “cost versus the quality of calves” when making decisions regarding calf housing, Dr. Fernando Soberon said. “We know that we need them to grow fast. There is a correlation between how they grow and how they milk. One of the most critical things we can do for our calves is to make sure they grow with nice, healthy lungs.”

Synergy Genetics LLC’s primary concern was biosecurity, meaning that their facility needed to have a very low mortality rate, and that calf health and safety were the primary goals in designing their calf barns. At True Farms, the overriding goal was to reduce labor needed in rearing the calves, while having more control over each individual calf’s growth and health.

Every farm needs to know what their goals are before embarking on designing and building calf housing. It’s not a one-size-fits-all prospect, although the primary goal is healthy calves, Soberon said.