In the winter of 2014, after rearing our baby calves in a individual hutch system for 20 years, we felt the need to look for an alternative method to rear our calves.
We loved raising our calves with the individual hutch system. It worked very well for us for a long time, but with the farm growing rapidly in size, we realized that there was too much labour required to maintain this system.
After many meetings and visits to fellow dairy colleagues, plans to build a new calf facility were born.
We chose to build a facility with group housing and an automated feeding system. We wanted a method that would decrease labour, make the overall feeding of the calves easier, and still raise quality replacements for the herd.
After several months of anticipation, on October 28, 2015, we moved the first calves into the new facility.
When a calf is born it stays in the main cow barn for the first 3-4 days, and is placed in an individual pen, where we make sure it is fed the right amounts of high quality colostrum. The calf will be vaccinated and he/or she will be tagged with the appropriate herd & registration numbers/RIDF button.
We monitor the amounts of milk each calf takes in, and when we determine the calf is ready, she is moved to the calf barn.
The calf barn is divided into two parts.
One length of the calf barn is divided into 4 equally sized rooms, with space for about 25 calves in each room.
Each room has a large observation window to allow the viewing of the calves without having to actually enter the room itself, due to Bio security.
The other length of the barn is a free stall area, also with 4 different groups.
We fill a room with calves for 21 days, so all heifers (female calfs) born within that time frame are moved into the same room and they become a group.
The group housing allows for socialization,(they make friends just like people do!) and it allows the calf to see and mimic behaviour.
Eating, suckling, resting and playing are now group activities that follow a pattern with a daily rhythm.
The rooms are fully climate controlled by a computer system and the calves are fed whole pasteurized milk by an automated calf feeding system.
We pump the pasteurized milk twice a day, underground, from the main barn, to the cooling tank in the calf barn.
In the calf barn,every room has its own feeding station with an ear tag reader, controlled by a main computer.
The computer reads every calf’s RIDF button, and each calf is given the desired quantity of milk (according to the feeding curve) spread into several portions throughout the day.
We are able to customize the milk amounts for each calf individually.
When a calf drinks from its mother, it usually drinks several portions spread out over the day. The automated system resembles the natural behaviour of a calf.
The machine also monitors the calves’ intake of portions at the right time, the right amounts, and the rate of the feeding.
After 63 days on whole milk, the calves are weaned gently by gradually reducing their milk portions, meaning that the calves automatically increase their intake of roughage, and therefore are weaned in a easy and stress free way.
For us, the automated system means less stress on the calves, increased growth, increased feed efficiency, and labour savings.
The environment for the calves is much more simple and worrying about massive temperature shifts from -35 or +35 degrees Celsius outside is no longer needed. No more birds bathing in the calves water, and no rain and snow to make their environment wet.
After a group of calves is weaned and they have adapted to a roughage diet, they are moved into the free stall area of the barn, where they stay together as a group for another 4 months.
The free stall area is a smaller version of the main cow barn. Our goal with this is to ensure that the calves learn to sleep in individual stalls, just like the adult cows.
Every month the calves move one group up until they are large enough to go outside and into the field.
Our work with the calves has changed significantly. Instead of day to day tasks (we have some new ones now), we’ve had to assume more management and observation positions, as it is much more challenging to identify diseases accurately in a group setting.