Eighth generation farmers Dan and Steve Gross have been farming for as long as they can remember, but growing demand for fed Holstein steers took the brothers’ Manchester, PA, cattle operation to a new level.
Dan recalls that for many years, the family’s Cold Spring Farms was home to about 130 calves at a time. Calves were housed in a variety of calf hutches and pens on the farm, but feeding and handling was inefficient.
“We wanted to mainstream the operation and make it easier to operate,” said Dan. “We knew we needed to do something different — we just didn’t realize how much the change would affect us.”
Prior to constructing new facilities, Dan and Steve spent a summer looking at various steer barns to get ideas about what they wanted, then designed a barn to suit their needs. The large feeder barn was started in late 2012, and construction of three calf barns started in 2014. “We finished the calf barns this past winter,” said Dan. “We built three to start, and finished building the fourth one this summer.”
The Holstein calves are sourced from a single 1,700-head dairy farm. This helps ensure uniform calves with a known background. Calves arrive at Cold Spring Farms at about seven to 10 days old, and most are already accustomed to drinking from a bucket. Realizing that efficiency was important in feeding large numbers of calves, the Grosses looked at several calf feeding systems and settled on the MilkShuttle. “It has really cut back on calf feeding time,” said Dan, describing the system. “We can’t feed that many calves any other way.”
The calf barns include 235 pens, and about 170 calves are on milk replacer at any given time. Calf feeder Zoey Workman is responsible for mixing milk replacer and feeding calves, and watches for signs of illness in calves. She and Steve work together to process calves and prepare them for transport to the next feeding stage.
Calves are raised in individual pens for eight weeks, then move to small group pens. Next, the calves are moved to a larger group pen, and eventually to a different farm for preconditioning prior to finishing at the large barn. Calves are introduced to a high-quality starter feed while on milk, and continue on a carefully designed feed regimen that ensures steady growth. Cattle are pushed from the start, which results in a solid, well-marbled carcass.
In addition to concentrate, calves weighing up to 400 or 500 pounds receive dry hay to maintain rumen function. Calves are moved to the finishing barn at about 500 pounds, and receive a ration that includes corn silage, high moisture corn, roasted soybeans, urea and a mineral mix. Average age to market is 18 to 19 months.
The Grosses farm about 2,000 acres and grow all of the components for the TMR. Steve, who handles crop work, has been especially interested in corn silage hybrids that are proven to improve milk production in dairy cattle, and has found that the same hybrids are beneficial for putting meat on.
The result of the feeding program is an annual yield of 650 to 700 head of Holsteins that go to the JBS plant in Souderton, PA, for processing. The average weight of the most recent loads shipped was 1,400 pounds, with an average dressing percent of close to 60 percent. Dan noted that packers seek 1,400 pound animals for cuts that are the appropriate size to meet consumer demand.
Because the farm includes land that isn’t suitable for crops, the Grosses also maintain 130 commercial beef cows on pasture. “We started with black Simmental bulls to get frame size on the cows,” said Dan. “Then we brought them down a little with Angus bulls. Now we’re crossing them with Herefords.” Calves are born in March and April and added to the farm’s finishing program after weaning.
Dan reflects on the differences between the old system and the one that’s in place now, and says the farm is far more efficient.
“We had a philosophy change when we made all of the improvements,” said Dan. “We were all doing everything together — someone would feed in this barn, someone else would feed in another barn, then we’d all go do crop work. We decided that each person should specialize in each area. I took over the cattle feeding, and Steve concentrates on crops and the small calves. From the time the calves leave the calf pen, I know where they are. I still do a lot of the other farm work, but I concentrate on the cattle. Steve and Zoey work on the small calves together each morning, and she can call him if there’s something he should check on in the evening.”