Building the Right Fit at Sunburst Dairy
Sixteen years ago, Brian and Yogi Brown of Sunburst Dairy in Belleville, Wis. decided to give up their old stanchion barn and expand to a freestall barn and parlor. The fresh start grew their herd to 300 cows and allowed them to hire employees. This was important as they wanted more scheduling freedom to spend time with their growing children. In 2007, they added a second barn and grew the herd to 500 cows – a “good number,” according to Yogi, because it allowed them to hire a fulltime feeder.
Today, Browns continue to milk 500 cows with the help of eight employees. In addition to the farm’s employee and finance management, Yogi heads up the care of the youngstock. Whitney, the Browns' youngest daughter, assists with feeding calves. Their son, Cory, helps on the farm and plans to return fulltime after he completes his degree through the University of Wisconsin-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course.
With the expansion, Browns transitioned to feeding pasteurized milk to their calves. Yogi said she saw improved performance with the pasteurizer because it offers consistency no matter who is feeding.
“I love my pasteurizer,” she said. “Calves just grow better.”
In the past, it was always a challenge to make sure the water was at the right temperature and milk replacer was adequately mixed each time. Yogi said she sampled the pasteurized milk frequently and found that the fat and protein content didn’t waver much at all. She said she believes it’s due to the constant mixture of fresh and waste milk.
From birth to 10 days of age, Yogi gradually increases the amount of milk the newborns are fed until they reach three gallons per day. With a mostly Holstein herd, calves are large and average a 100-pound birthweight. When they are weaned at six weeks, they generally range from 200 to 220 pounds.
Yogi said she used to wean the calves at five weeks, but found that the extra week on milk makes a big difference in their future performance. If she has extra milk to feed, she’ll keep them on milk longer.
To limit stress on calves, Yogi minimizes the amount of changes a calf experiences at any one time. The calves are weaned off milk for about one week before they transition to a group pen. They’ll remain on the same feed for a week after entering the group pen.
Recently, Yogi switched to dehorning with a paste instead of the traditional dehorning, which she said was increasingly difficult with larger calves. Yogi moves the newborn calf into its hutch within a day. At that time, she trims the hair with a clippers and applies the paste right away. She said she has been happy with this technique so far.
Finding the best fit for their facilities
Yogi said Sunburst Dairy has made several changes over the past couple of years to maximize calves’ performance with their facilities. The biggest of those changes was switching to sand bedding from May through October. The sand bedding, coupled with a 15-inch gravel pad beneath the hutches, helps drain moisture away from the calves and improves fly control. Yogi said employees also appreciate not having to bed calves with straw frequently during the warm months.
Other simple changes have had an impact too. Until a couple of years ago, Yogi fed her 70 calves inside their hutches. She decided to feed the calves outside instead, so she bent the wire panels to make the corners square and attached the milk/water buckets outside the pen. This past fall, she moved the grain outside the pen as well. She said this strategy is great because calves have to come outside to eat, allowing her a better chance to observe the animals.
Changes for the future
As Yogi looks down the road, she said the next big change to the calf facilities will probably be to replace the hutches with a calf barn. She predicts employees won’t want to feed calves outside year-round. However, she said she and Brian are waiting to make any big changes to the farm until their son, Cory, returns fulltime.
“We’re going to wait until Cory decides what he wants to do,” she said. “He has a lot of good ideas and we want to be able to use them.”
Regardless of the changes that do come, a commitment details and a willingness to try new things to improve the calf program will remain a cornerstone for Sunburst Dairy.
Yogi said, “Quality control, that’s my number one job.”