Just like with human babies, growing young calves well is critical for their continued development and how they will perform as adults. How those needs are met, though, can be achieved in a variety of ways, and three New York dairy farmers who take different approaches to calf feeding shared their insights and experiences during the Northeast Dairy Management Conference.
All three panelists stressed the importance of consistency and cleanliness in their calf program. For Hanehan Family Dairy, consistency takes the form of feeding milk replacer twice each day to their 125 calves on milk that are housed in individual pens in a few different buildings. “We never had enough waste milk when we tried that,” noted Rachel Hanehan. The replacer is mixed in a 100-gallon barrel with a drill and delivered at a final temperature of around 110°F.
A regular routine also keeps calves on the right track. Hanehan explained that their stepped-up feeding takes calves from 2 to 3 to 4 quarts of milk by the time they are 10 days old, and at 8 weeks, they begin the stepped down weaning program to be weaned by 9 weeks. Colored bands mark pens so everyone knows what level of milk calves should receive.
Weaning occurs at 10 weeks at Atwater Farms, and Seth Atwater believes the extra time on milk is worth it to graduate bigger calves since the farm has enough waste milk to do it. The waste milk is pasteurized, and then a balancer is added so calves receive milk with 15% solids. This allows the farm to feed less milk and have healthier calves, with no drop in average daily gain even in the winter. “That inconsistency in manure is gone, and they’re more aggressive with a better appetite,” Atwater said of adding the balancer.
After birth, calves are moved to a room before their individual pen in a barn that is 300 feet long and 24 feet wide. Atwater finds this setup more labor efficient than outdoor hutches since a milk tank can be driven down the barn aisles to deliver each calf’s meal. Buckets are cleaned using a motorized brush after every feeding.
Labor efficiency is also key at Half Full Dairy, which uses three automatic feeders for its calves. It’s a talent to manage the machines, says Jeanne Wormuth, and this can lead to some labor turnover. However, the machines allow more freedom for feeding, of course, and offer detailed data on each calf’s behavior. Wormuth said that the most important metric they monitor is drinking speed, which can be a good indicator of illness and often supports what the calf manager may have already observed.
The robots also allow the stepped up and stepped down feeding system used at Half Full to go smoothly, with Wormuth noting that weaning has become a lot less stressful for the calves. Calves are weaned at 57 days old, but for four weeks before beginning weaning, they are allowed all the milk they want. Expanding on that philosophy, Wormuth pointed out that in a group setting, you are not feeding for the top performers — you’re feeding for the poorest calves to ensure everyone gets enough.