Virtual Farm Tour: Birchen Farms Inc.
Raising calves in group housing continues to gain interest among both dairy producers and researchers. The team at Birchen Farms Inc. in Pearl City, Illinois, has successfully raised calves in group housing for about 16 years.
Birchen Farms is owned and operated by Rod and Mary Birchen along with their two sons, Adam and Andrew, their wives, and their daughter Dr. Molita Salzmann. The farm currently milks about 1,500 Holsteins.
Rod and Mary’s niece, Jen Birchen, has worked as the calf manager for about 17 years. While their calf and heifer program differs from many Midwest farms, they consistently raise strong and healthy replacements for the herd.
Colostrum is key
When asked what’s most important to raise healthy calves, Jen said, “You need a good start.”
A bedded pack is used for the farm’s just-in-time calving. A chute in the maternity pen allows the cow to be milked soon after calving, and the newborn calf is visible to the dam the entire time. Colostrum is tested with a Brix refractometer and stored in Perfect Udder® colostrum bags.
All newborns receive 4 liters of colostrum with a Brix score of 22% or higher within the first hour of life and are placed in warming pens with in-floor heat, radiant heat (on a thermostat), and deep straw bedding. Calves receive a second feeding of 2 liters of colostrum (Brix score of 18% to 21.9%) six hours later. Serum total proteins are measured on every calf to monitor colostrum program effectiveness. The results are posted weekly in the maternity area to let the maternity team see if the colostrum program is reaching its goals.
Calf feeding and management
Birchen Farms has built six identical calf barns within the last four years. Each barn can hold 67 calves. The farm uses an all-in-all-out system, and each barn sits empty for about three weeks between groups of calves to limit pathogen exposure.
The farm feeds pasteurized whole milk supplemented with Calf Energize year-round. Jen said they first added the supplemental fat when they were dealing with a Clostridium challenge about two years ago. Because calves returned to health and achieved a higher average daily gain, Jen decided to continue feeding Calf Energize. Calves also receive BSF calf starter with 22% protein.
Newborns are first put into individual pens and fed 3-quart bottles of pasteurized whole milk. They’ll stay on bottles for 10 to 14 days before being placed into groups of four calves. Once in groups, they eat from mob feeders, with each calf getting approximately 3 quarts twice a day. The milk feeding is always followed by warm water, and the calves have 24/7 access to starter.
Each feeder has five nipples, and Jen said she experimented with five calves per feeder, but it always seemed like one calf was pushed out. With four calves and five nipples, each calf can easily find a spot at the feeder. The feeders are washed and sanitized weekly. The nipples are replaced when a group is weaned.
Calves are weaned between 8 and 10 weeks of age as half of a barn (approximately 30 calves) is weaned at one time. For three days, these calves receive just water at the afternoon feeding. For another three days, they receive only water and grain. After that, the small groups are combined into a group of 30 and introduced to a high-protein, high-energy TMR, which is top-dressed with BSF for six days.
After two weeks, the weaned heifers move to new barns but remain in the same group of 30 calves. They also continue to receive the same TMR, but they will now eat through slant bars rather than from bunks. They’ll gradually be introduced to larger groups as they get older.
Team communication pays
Jen usually feeds the calves every morning with the help of another employee. Two other employees take care of the afternoon feedings. To help keep everyone on the same page, Jen keeps a weekly planner notebook on the Kubota® used to deliver milk. The team uses the notebook to record, track and share calf notes with other team members.
As a manager, Jen said she likes to work closely alongside the team and tries to be flexible in covering shifts when needed. They occasionally do fun activities together or share a meal to strengthen morale. With a 1% calf treatment rate, this approach appears to work well as the team raises strong, healthy calves.
Jen said, “It really helps to have a good team.”
Starting Strong - Calf Care