Virtual Farm Tour: Aquila Dairy Farms
Seventeen years ago, the Verhaar family immigrated to Bad Axe, Michigan and has been working toward excellence in dairy production ever since. Today, the family owns and operates Aquila Dairy Farms. Through gradual expansions, the dairy has grown to its current size of 2,000 crossbred milking cows.
Maaike (Verhaar) Ryzebol is the second generation to join the family farm. In addition to heading up Aquila’s calf program, Ryzebol and her husband began milking cows on their own farm in June. Two of her brothers also own their own dairies.
The calves from all of these farms are raised at the main dairy under Ryzebol’s supervision. She has a four-member calf team with two calf raisers onsite at all times. Her employees take care of the feeding and bedding while Ryzebol walks the calves daily and administers all treatments.
One of the most noticeable features of Aquila’s calf program is the unique housing. Calves are kept in individual hutches under tall roofs. Ryzebol said she and her family did a lot of research as they were choosing calf facilities. They knew they wanted to get out of the rain and snow, but didn’t like the calf health they observed in traditional barn systems.
Thus, they designed their own structures that allow for adequate ventilation, yet provide an excellent climate for workers and calves year-round. The barns include a shade cloth that blocks virtually all of the snow in the winter time. During the hot summer months, Ryzebol said she notices a 10- to 15-degree difference in temperature under the shade of the roofs.
Newborn calves first move into their hutches at about 5 days of age after they’ve learned to drink from buckets. They are fed a 24/18 milk replacer twice a day. The new calf is given a handful of grain and that amount is gradually increased as she gets older. For the first six weeks, calves are fed water in the morning only. After that, calves have access to water 24 hours a day.
Calves are gradually weaned in their hutches after six weeks. For one week, they will receive a milk feeding in the afternoons only. Then they’ll switch to a diet of water and grain only.
At 8 to 10 weeks, that calves are moved to another site just down the road where they’ll be grouped in pens of about 16 calves. As they grow, the calves will move down the line to different pens in the heifer barns. In the first pen, they receive the same grain they are fed in the hutches. A couple weeks later, they transition to an 18-percent grower grain and TMR diet that’s top-dressed with hay in the afternoon.
Consistency and cleanliness
“Be consistent,” Ryzebol said. “That’s number one.”
To ensure her team is staying on top of protocols, Ryzebol carefully observes employees and strives for good communication at all times. When a new employee is hired, he or she is first paired with a senior calf raiser to “learn the ropes” before taking on chores independently.
Cleanliness is also a requirement. The calf hutches sit on sand bedding to allow for good drainage and new straw bedding is applied twice a week. Hutches are thoroughly power-washed between calves and sit empty for about a week before new calves move in. In addition, the calf team rinses and sanitizes about 150 of the calf pails every day.
According to Ryzebol, the farm’s name, Aquila, is Italian for eagle. Her father first discovered that name while touring Italian dairies before moving to the U.S. He always thought Aquila would be a good name for his dairy as the eagle is a symbol of leadership, strength and freedom. Today, the Verhaars continue to work toward being leaders in dairy farming. Ryzebol said she networks with fellow producers and learns from them. She said her family is always on the lookout for new ideas and frequently discusses the next technology that will bring further success to the farm.
Starting Strong - Calf Care