Virtual Farm Tour: City Slickers Farm, LLC
The first edition of our Vita Plus Starting Strong calf care e-news was delivered to calf raisers’ inboxes in 2010 and included a virtual farm tour of City Slickers Farm, LLC in Cross Plains, Wisconsin. The scope of this farm, which specializes in raising all seven dairy breeds of calves from embryo transfer, has changed considerably, but the commitment to excellent calf care has been a cornerstone of the farm from the beginning.
At City Slickers Farm, Mike and Linda Hellenbrand average about 100 calves on milk each month. About half of the calves are raised for Genex, based in Shawano, Wisconsin, while the others are owned in partnership with many prominent dairies, as well as investors, who reside across the U.S. and internationally. Linda takes the lead on daily calf care, and now relies on the help of a team of full- and part-time employees.
Whether it’s a Genex calf that has an outstanding genotype, a partnership calf whose lineage may influence its success in the showring, or one that is the last hope to produce future generations of a valued pedigree, every calf is raised with the highest standards and protocols. The City Slickers program is designed to maximize the potential that every calf is healthy and can reach its genetic potential, and so that the Hellenbrands’ partners are happy with the results. To do this, they focus on excelling at the basics of calf care.
Clean, clean, clean
One of those areas is cleanliness. Dirty bedding is removed from every calf hutch daily and rebedded. This not only limits pathogen growth, but also adds other benefits, according to Linda. For one, it gives employees an extra opportunity to observe calf behavior and catch any signs of illness early. Calves also become used to people, so animal handling is a less stressful event.
After a calf leaves its hutch, the pen is washed with soap and bleach. It is then sprayed with a chlorine dioxide solution and left to rest as long as possible. Seasonally, the City Slickers team digs out and replaces the lime screenings beneath hutches to further sanitize the area.
Calves have dedicated pails for their water and grain. For the past six months, the Hellenbrands have used bottles exclusively to feed milk replacer to all calves. Those bottles are sanitized after every feeding and Linda said the farm’s commercial restaurant dishwasher has been a great tool for efficiency and consistency.
Calves are started with just a handful of grain, and that amount is gradually increased based on consumption. Linda developed a Microsoft Excel calf feeding scorecard that tracks how much is fed to each calf. She said this helps provide consistency in feeding regardless of who is doing the chore. Each day, consumption is rated on a scale of 0 (calf ate nothing) to 4 (calf ate everything) and recorded on the scoresheet. This helps the team catch calves that might be mounting a health challenge.
Last year, City Slickers switched to Talon 25/25 milk replacer to get more energy into the growing calves. Large-breed calves are fed 3 quarts twice daily, while Jerseys are fed 2 quarts initially and gradually increased to 3 quarts. Linda said the farm’s Milk Taxi helps employees mix the milk replacer with a consistent temperature and targeted solids content every time.
Calves are always given fresh, clean water, which means pails must be collected and dumped during the winter. If electrolytes are needed, Linda administers that feeding halfway between the two milk replacer feedings.
The weaning process is customized as well. Linda said most calves consume between 8 to 10 pounds of the 18-percent starter daily before weaning. They are weaned between three and four months of age, depending on “calf readiness.” Linda evaluates the calf’s size and considers its pedigree. Because the farm has so much genetic variation, she said she must look at each animal as an individual and can’t compare it to its cohorts.
The power of details
“Pay attention to detail,” Linda said. “Calves tell you so much with their behavior.”
She and her team observe calves during feedings, hutch cleanings, and through multiple walkthroughs every day.
In addition to the daily details, Linda pays attention to changes in her strategies over time. When they’re faced with a new challenge, she said it’s sometimes helpful to think about what worked in the past and go back to that strategy.
Mike, who specializes in the embryo transfer part of the business, emphasized the real value of calf health on the farm.
“If we lose a calf here, that’s real money,” he said.
Although the farm is different from most dairies, Mike said City Slickers also must find ways to be profitable on slim margins. The best way to do that is to raise healthy calves. For example, he said the industry average for stillbirths is 8 percent, but City Slickers “couldn’t live with 8 percent stillbirths.” They maintain a stillbirth rate below 1 percent and have to continually find ways to raise each calf that’s born to be a high-performing animal.
Linda said that’s where her “custom care” becomes so important.
She said, “For us, every calf gets every chance.”
Starting Strong - Calf Care