Virtual Farm Tour: Fischer-Clark Dairy Farm, Inc.
After outgrowing their calf facilities, Heidi Fischer and the team at Fischer-Clark Dairy Farm, Inc. in Hatley, Wisconsin were ready to build a new calf barn. They drew up plans for an autofeeder barn, but Fischer pulled the plug “in the eleventh hour.” She had toured many autofeeder facilities and never felt completely comfortable with calf health and performance in those barns.
“We’re really good at feeding calves in individual pens,” she said. “Let’s just do that.”
The team modified the barn design to house four rows of individual pens instead. The monoslope barn is designed to work like a chimney to pull away stale air. Programmable curtains and six variable-speed ceiling fans also aid in regulating temperature and air quality. Construction was completed in the fall, and Fischer has been happy with the results during this first winter. She said, when it was -18 degrees F outside, the greenhouse barn maintained 20 degrees inside.
Fischer-Clark Dairy currently milks 750 cows and is working its way up to 1,000. Three years ago, Fischer joined her husband, Jon, and his parents, Mike and Sue, to work full-time on the farm. Her primary responsibility is calf management, and she’s designed a system that works well for her and the one full-time and two part-time employees.
Fischer used an ATP meter to evaluate sanitation of her calf equipment and facilities. She said she was “blown away” by how dirty gloves are. Now, all employees put on new disposable gloves before they start feeding calves.
Fischer feeds pasteurized whole milk. Calves are given dedicated buckets, which are numbered to match their pens. Buckets are swapped, sanitized and dried daily.
In the evening, calf chores can be accomplished in a four-hour shift. After calves are fed, the night crew is assigned a different cleaning task each day of the week to spread out the responsibilities. These tasks include taking out the garbage, cleaning the grain room, or scrubbing down the floor and windows of the mixing room.
Communication and culture
Fischer emphasizes organization and attention to detail in every calf-related task. Different colored bands are attached to pens to indicate how much calves should be fed from the first day on the bottle to weaning. Notes attached to each pen show the various vaccinations and treatments a calf received along the way. This is faster for the team to reference than flipping back through pages of notes.
For about two and a half years, Fischer has used a Facebook Messenger thread to communicate with the calf team. Employees are required to give a report at the end of every shift. She said employees have responded well to this process. Facebook Messenger uses less cell phone data than text messages. It also provides historical context. For example, a team member may report that a calf did not finish its milk. They can easily scroll through the history and see if they had previous issues with that calf.
Fischer recognizes not every calf task is a fun task, so she tries to make things as enjoyable as possible. She said a positive attitude makes all the difference when it comes to managing her employees. She is also not afraid to do the work herself and that means a lot to the team too. She works side-by-side with them and often asks for their input on improving various processes.
Whole farm perspective
Fischer also helps her employees understand the impact of calf health and performance on the future success of the dairy.
“My philosophy is you have to give every calf every opportunity to do well,” she said.
She gladly takes on other roles throughout the dairy so she can keep an eye on the entire operation. For example, she joins the vet every week for the herd health walkthrough and reports back to the two herdsmen. She assists with biweekly heifer moving and brings lunch for the whole team on that day. She also lends a hand in the milking parlor if a scheduled worker is unable to fill his or her shift. All of this helps her see how the calves perform as they grow and enter the lactating herd and drives her to give calves the best possible care in their first weeks of life.
She said, “If you want a cow producing 120 pounds of milk over there, I have to give them every opportunity here.”
Starting Strong - Calf Care