At City Slickers Farm in Cross Plains, Wis., calf care is of the utmost importance. That’s because owners Mike and Linda Hellenbrand have “zero tolerance” for losing even one calf.
Mike and Linda purchased City Slickers Farm in 1995 as an investment and moved from New York City in 2001 to begin farming fulltime. As an embryo transfer (ET) farm, the Hellenbrands implant embryos and raise heifers from all 6 dairy breeds. They have a total of 500 animals on their operation: 150 ET calves, 150 beef recipients and 200 dairy recipients. In an average month, they have 35 calves on milk and 50 calves weaned onsite.
Healthy calves at City Slickers Farm start with good facilities. When calves are first born, they are immediately taken to individual pens in a heated shop. They’ll remain there for about three days to two weeks depending on weather and calf readiness. When they’re ready, they move to individual hutches which are sanitized with bleach between calves. In the winter, each calf is also outfitted with a jacket and ear muffs. Calves stay in the hutches for 10 to 12 weeks before being weaned. The next stop for the calves is super-hutches in groups of four. Every day, bedding in all calf housing is cleaned and freshened.
While Mike focuses on the ET work, Linda is primarily responsible for calf care. To meet the goal of maximizing calves’ growth, Linda puts special concentration on feeding the animal. At three days, grain and water are introduced. In the cool months, she adds Vita Plus Calf Energize to the milk to give the calves extra energy and sustain their growth. Calves less than 2 weeks old are also given electrolytes midday which has benefited them during extreme weather changes.
For Hellenbrands, one of the biggest challenges is maintaining consistent growth across all breeds. To do this, Linda works hard to encourage the “slower starters.” She’s found that the best way to introduce the calf starter is to spend extra time with each individual calf. When she’s done feeding milk, she hand feeds these animals their starter until they take to it on their own. To promote appetite, she has had success with probiotics, and uses Calf Energize even when it’s not cold just to give the slow calves extra calories and maintain growth.
Closely monitoring calf health is also a top priority at City Slickers Farm and the farm thrives on early detection. Because Linda solely cares for the calves, she can easily recognize even the slightest changes in animal behavior. She also carries a thermometer with her everywhere she goes so that she can check the animal’s body temperature right away before moving onto the next task. As a result, her calves remain very healthy. She said a key learning for her has been keeping a daily health sheet to record every observation or treatment so that she consistently knows the history of every calf.
Linda recognizes that the extra attention she gives to her animals is not necessarily the norm across the industry. However, with Hellenbrands’ high-dollar animals, there’s no other way to run the farm.
“We put a lot of work into our product,” she said. “These calves are our business.”