After growing their milking herd from 300 cows to 500, Myron Daniels, co-owner of MGD Farms in Union Grove, Wisconsin, had too many calves for their 25-pen calf barn. Frustrated with having their surplus calves scattered around the dairy, Myron told his two partners, Dave Daniels and Gene Weis, they needed do something. After visiting several farms, they decided to add on to their existing calf barn and install automatic calf feeders.
The three cousins first formed the dairy in 1996 after one of them joked he’d milk the cows if someone else raised the crops. At the time, they were each milking between 40 and 70 cows, so it made more sense to combine their efforts. Today, Myron handles the youngstock and equipment maintenance while Dave manages the milking herd. Gene formerly managed the crops and breeding; however, he is semi-retired, now allowing Myron’s son Chad to step up and help with the crop management. Dave’s son Nick is a trained hoof trimmer, so he takes care of their hoof trimming needs in addition to helping with the cows and equipment maintenance.
Altogether, the cousins farm about 1,300 acres with animals split among the farms. Dave’s farm houses the close-up cows, milking herd and calves up to 2 months old. Daniels’ old milking barns were renovated to house calves from 2 to 12.5 months old, and Gene’s farm houses all heifers from 12.5 months old to a few weeks prior to parturition, as well as transition cows.
The calf barn addition has three large pens for calves. Myron says he likes to limit it to 20 calves in a pen with no more than a three-week age span between the oldest and youngest calf in the pen.
Ventilation was a key concern for them when they built the calf barn addition. With this in mind, they chose to install positive-pressure ventilation tubes and curtain sidewalls on two sides. Myron says the ventilation consultant on the project wanted them to also install two large fans 4 feet off the ground on one side of the barn to help with air circulation at the calf level. Myron, however, thought fans that low would be in the way. To solve this, they installed the fans higher up but built plywood boxes over the fans. The plywood boxes end 4 feet off the ground and are open on the bottom. Because of this, the fans function as if they were only 4 feet off the ground.
In the winter, the ventilation system is set for four air exchanges per hour but, in the summer, this in increased to 40. Myron says even in the winter, with the curtains all closed, the air never becomes stale in the barn. He can feel the air moving, but there is no breeze. As a result, he says they have very few problems with pneumonia. When they first started in the calf barn in December 2015, they ran about a 10 percent pneumonia rate, but now he has it down to 2 to 3 percent on average with a 5 percent morbidity rate and 3 percent mortality rate. He attributes this not only to their ventilation system but also to their new cleaning protocols.
After some issues with Mycoplasma last spring, Myron added chlorine dioxide to their cleaning regimen and installed a water treatment system. In addition, they also recently installed a water softener system which he says makes cleaning the auto-feeders much easier. However, the softened water is only used in the auto-feeders to mitigate calves’ sodium intake.
Myron says runoff was another major concern for him when building the barn extension. He was vehement about having absolutely no runoff from the barns so each of the pens are sloped toward the middle at a 1.5 percent grade into a pea gravel strip which goes to a reception pit in the corner of the barn. From there it is pumped to the farm’s manure pit.
In hindsight, he says they probably could have gone with a slightly steeper grade in the pens, as the bottom 3 inches of bedding are usually wet when they clean out the pens between groups. However, Myron says this isn’t a major concern as he adds bedding to the pens each week so calves still stay nice and dry.
For the first two weeks of life, the calves stay in individual pens in the original calf barn where Myron can keep a close eye on them and make sure they’re ready to transition to the auto-feeder.
At this point, calves receive 2 quarts of pasteurized waste milk mixed with a 25 percent protein, 10 percent fat balancer twice a day, but he quickly ramps them up to 3 quarts twice a day. As a preventative measure, Myron also includes a vitamin supplement in the calves’ milk ration from birth through weaning. This supplement includes rumensin, biomass, yeast and animal plasma.
Once they’re on the auto-feeders, calves have access to starter and continue on the waste milk and balancer mixture. After the first week, their milk allotment is upped from 12 to 16 quarts per day, which is where they stay until day 25 on the auto-feeder, when they’re limited to 12.7 quarts each day. Myron says for the first 25 days on the feeder, calves average 10 to 13 quarts of milk per day, and their growth really starts to take off. On day 32, calves start the 10-day weaning process, and their milk allotment is gradually reduced to 2.1 quarts per day. On day 42, they are completely off milk.
Myron says he hears some bellowing from the calves at weaning, but they’re consistently eating enough starter at that point to not miss their milk feeding too much. Calves stay in the pens for another week before heading to Myron’s farm.
Myron tapes each calf when it comes over from the maternity area. On average, he says a calf enters the barn at 100 pounds and leaves the barn at 325 pounds, giving him an average daily gain (ADG) of 2.5 to 3 pounds.
While Myron strongly considered building a barn with individual calf pens, it would have cost them the same as their addition with group pens and auto-feeders. He liked the auto-feeders not only because they allow him to get better growth on the calves at a young age, but because he feels it enables him to better care for their calves.
“We have a dairy breakfast in June every year,” he says. “We had it here one year. I had a few calves that were ready to be weaned in here. They were quite large, and I heard one lady say, ‘Well, how come you’ve got that big calf in that small pen?’ I really didn’t have a good answer for her, so I said, ‘That’s just the way our facilities are here. We don’t have anywhere else to put them.’ She said, ‘Oh, that’s just inhumane.’ Now, I can say we’re doing something for them.”
While the auto-feeders do come with a pretty good learning curve, Myron says he’s excited to see how they perform in the milking parlor. The first groups of auto-feeder-fed heifers are starting to freshen in now, and so far they seem to be doing well. In fact, the farm’s cows currently average 90 pounds of milk per day at 4.2 percent butterfat and 3.2 percent protein with a 30,000-pound rolling herd average. The heifers, however, are on track to achieve a 33,000-pound rolling herd average. Even though the heifers are larger, Myron plans to keep breeding the heifers at 13 months.
Going forward, Myron says they have no plans to expand their dairy, as increasing their herd would cause them to be reclassified as a CAFO. Instead, he is using genomic testing to grow their milk production by raising only their best heifers. All heifers are now genomic-tested by 2 months, and the bottom 10 percent of heifers are automatically culled shortly after weaning. In addition, he breeds the bottom 25 percent of their heifers and cows to Black Angus. He is considering breeding the top 25 to 50 percent of their heifers to sexed semen; however, he isn’t sure if it’s worth it at this point, as it would give him too many heifers.
Visit www.progressivedairy.com/MGD-Farms to view a photo slideshow of MGD Farms.
Photos by Jenna Hurty-Person.