Cow Comfort and Attention to Details Make All the Difference In Raising Healthy Calves
For the Meissner family at Norm-E-Lane Farms in Chili, Wis., cow comfort reigns supreme. That fact is evident with a quick walk through the operation’s recently built transition facility.
Josh Meissner owns and operates Norm-E-Lane Farms with his dad, uncle and cousin. Built in the late 1940s, this third generation family farm has grown significantly since the early days. In 1965, Norm-E-Lane became one of the first farms in the state to add a parlor milking system – a double-8 herringbone – to the tie stall barn. A 350-cow freestall was constructed in 1974. By 2000, the farm had grown to 1,000 cows and, with recent expansions, has developed into today’s 2,200-cow dairy.
Until 2007, the dry and fresh cows were kept in the old tie stall barn. But as the herd grew, the Meissners knew they “needed to bite the bullet” and build a new facility to optimize cow comfort. Today’s transition facility is a freestall barn that holds 180 pre-fresh cows, 30 post-fresh stalls, five calving pens and a small milking parlor. Josh said the main upgrades with the new facility include better ventilation, deep-bedded stalls (the other freestall barns use cow mattresses) and increased space per cow.
Although the new facility was a big investment, Josh said it’s been paying for itself every day. He said the improved cow comfort has brought calving issues to nearly zero.
“It’s made a world of difference,” Josh said.
Three employees work in the transition barn around the clock. Every 20 minutes, someone walks through to watch for any cows close to calving. Cows about to freshen are walked along the perimeter of the barn and placed in individual calving pens. Josh said this is important because it creates a cleaner environment for the newborn calf and is also safer for the calf and workers.
The calving pens include chutes so that the cows can be milked almost immediately and the calves receive colostrum within 30 to 60 minutes of birth. Jennifer Ackerman, Norm-E-Lane calf manager, said she uses a colostrum meter to test the colostrum quality before feeding it to the calves. If it is poor quality, she’ll use stored colostrum if available or colostrum replacer.
The value of colostrum on Norm-E-Lane is also seen in the fresh cow parlor and milkhouse. A custom-built colostrum chiller helps minimize bacteria growth in the stored colostrum. The chiller uses near-freezing water to decrease the colostrum’s temperature to 38 degrees in about 10 minutes – a much faster rate than a standard refrigerator.
Ackerman, who’s been with Norm-E-Lane since last August, said she sticks to specific protocols to promote calf health as much as possible. Heifer calves’ navels are dipped three times after the calf is born: immediately upon birth, 15 minutes after being moved into the calf pen and when the heifer calves are moved to the outdoor hutches. Blood samples are also taken 24 hours after birth to evaluate IgG levels.
Moving to the Hutches
Soon after birth, heifer calves are moved to individual hutches. They are fed warm pasteurized milk from a bucket right away. A special milk tank in a small pick-up truck allows employees to feed the calves through a hose and nozzle system so that they can drive and feed at the same time. They get out of the truck to work with the newest calves and train them to drink from the bucket. Ackerman said the training period usually only lasts about three days. Free choice grain is introduced right away and calves are weaned at seven weeks.
No matter the season, water feeding is an integral part of calf care at Norm-E-Lane. All calves are given water year-round and Ackerman noted it’s always fresh, warm water. The old water is dumped daily. In the winter, pre-weaned calves receive water once and weaned calves are given water twice a few hours apart. After a couple of hours, all of the water is dumped to avoid freezing. Ackerman said the amount of water fed is related to each calf’s grain intake. In other words, the more grain a calf eats the more water it drinks. That equates to about two gallons of water for weaned calves in the winter.
Sanitation is another key to Norm-E-Lane’s calf program. Each calf uses the same bucket the entire time it’s in a hutch, limiting the potential for cross-contamination. When calves are moved to the heifer facility, the hutches are tipped up for two to three weeks to let the sun act as a natural sanitizer. All of the bedding is removed and it is two to three weeks before another calf enters the same hutch.
During the winter, calves wear blankets from birth to three weeks of age. Ackerman said this is very important because her goal is to keep the animals as dry and warm as possible. As a result, her calves remain very healthy. That’s evident in Norm-E-Lane’s calf mortality rate. The operation has only lost 0.34 percent of its calves since Ackerman has joined the team – a statistic that makes Meissners and Ackerman very proud.
Josh Meissner said Ackerman “has been a great fit for our team” and that team approach is a part of every aspect of the operation. Josh said the farm is fortunate to have a very low employee turnover rate. He said that’s partly because “employee comfort” is valued just as much as cow comfort. He expects a lot out of his employees, but in turn focuses on keeping them as happy and comfortable as possible at work. When everyone feels they play an integral role in the team, it makes paying attention to Norm-E-Lane’s little details an everyday priority.