All of the emphasis may have been on Empire Farm Days, but for 100 participants in the pre-event dairy tour, presented jointly by the Northwestern New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crop Team, Cornell Pro-Dairy, and Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, there was an opportunity to get up close and personal with two area dairy farming families, Extension educators and industry representatives. The event, which focused on intensively managed calf housing options, allowed participants to visit Synergy Genetics LLC, in Wyoming, NY and True Farms in nearby Perry, NY to experience two different approaches to achieving excellence in calf housing and care.
“No facility should be the same, because no goals are the same, between two farms,” Dr. Fernando Soberon, Ruminant Technical Services Manager with Shur-Gain, told participants. While calf health is the ultimate goal, “each farm will have a different way of achieving it.”
Industry sponsors provided a catered lunch to participants at this free event. DeLaval, Agri-Plastics, Cidec LLC, Craigs Station Creamery, Farm Credit East and Fred’s Tent, all of whom have provided services or equipment to one or both of the tour farms, had representatives available to discuss information with participants.
True Farms calf barn
With a change in management perspective regarding calf care, the True family of Perry, NY opted to devote their resources to building a group-housed and group-fed dairy barn. After having managed calves in individual housing, and making the switch to the new system three years ago, the family shared their experiences with visitors.
Jeff True, who owns the family dairy with his brother, Brian, explained the dairy was “gain feeding before, but now we want to know what calves are eating,” and the new management system “seemed like the next step in a little more individual management of the calves.”
The calf building is a Seneca Iron Works design of post-frame construction. The naturally ventilated building features power chimneys in the roof, and supplemental side fans, as well as side curtains which are kept open at least a four inches at all times to decrease respiratory concerns in the calves. The building was to have been built on a two-degree slope to best assist with drainage, but is actually only at a one-degree slope due to communication issues. The 52 feet by 210 feet facility is 14 feet tall, with a flat ceiling.
Six calf pens are located along one side of the barn. Calves are grouped by age with a 10-day age window per pen and 20 animals per pen. A wide alley runs along the other side of the building. The alley could have been narrower, which might have enhanced the ventilation, Stacia True said. While the power chimneys do work well, she would also have preferred to install tube ventilation.
The new facility features three DeLaval automated calf feeders, which offer data allowing the dairy to monitor and track intake on each individual animal. Pens are bedded with shavings over straw and cleaned out and disinfected thoroughly between each group. Each pen is served by a dual feeder unit. A mix of dairy breeds, including Jerseys, Holsteins and Brown Swiss, are housed together.
Jerseys perform differently at the autofeeders, and would benefit from smaller sized nipples, Chris True, who oversees the calf barn, said. The Swiss will steal milk designated for the Jerseys by nudging around them when the Jersey calf is at the feeder. Thus, the automated feeder data “says they (Jerseys) are drinking but they are not,” making it difficult to determine the amounts actually being fed to each cow.
Cows are fed a 26-18 milk replacer, and the farm does not increase the fat much in winter, as the calves won’t visit an autofeeder as much when fat fills them up. Calves received two quarts of replacer, every two hours, up to 12 quarts per day, with some carryover permissible. Seven or eight visits to the feeder are the norm. Loose stools occurred when they were programmed to allow up to 14 quarts per day, without any additional gain seen.
While the automated feeders and group pens do save on labor, the feeders themselves require daily attention to keep clean and sanitized. Feeders are circuit cleaned once per day: the heat element; hosing; mixing jars; nipples; and other parts must be disinfected properly. All stainless steel components inside and outside of the feeding pen are sanitized with bleach solutions. The stall and nipple take time to clean properly each day, Chris said. Hoses are changed every 60 days.
According to Corwin Holtz, Holtz-Nelson Dairy Consulting LLC, “the weaning process is easier to manage with autofeeders.”
Calves are on the automated feeder for 60 days, and increasing the weaning time has provided better results at True Farms. A more gradual weaning has helped decrease weaning concerns, such as sucking issues in group pens.
The all-inclusive cost of the finished building, including pens, feeders and all building work, was about $370,000. The investment in the dairy, which milks over 1,000 cows, has allowed them to gain better control over calf health and assist with making better and more timely culling decisions, thereby reducing overall costs of raising replacement heifers. The primary objective when designing the new calf facility at True Farms was to lower labor needs. But now that they are utilizing the new facility, they have other goals, including enhancing calf health and performance.
Soberon encouraged tour participants to realize that “a clear objective of why you want to build your facility” is the first step when designing new calf housing, and suggested that they use the experiences of both tour farms and incorporate the lessons learned to best satisfy their own unique goals.