Virtual Farm Tour: Heim’s Hillcrest Dairy LLC
A higher plane of nutrition can lead to improved performance in dairy calves and automatic calf feeders can be very effective in delivering that nutrition to each calf when managed effectively.
Jeremy Heim and his brother joined their parents in ownership of the farm in 2000. At that time, the family milked about 200 cows. With the edition of a new barn, the farm expanded to its current size of 600 milking cows. Since 1995, all heifer calves were being sent to a nearby custom raiser.
But in 2012, Heim was looking to boost calf performance, achieve higher rates of gain, and reduce total costs by bringing the calves back home. Originally, the plan was to install traditional hutches for all of the calves, but a conversation with the local equipment dealer changed his mind.
Heim said he liked the idea of being able to feed calves more frequently with the autofeeder, but the price tag was “kind of scary at first.” However, when he calculated the total cost for hutches, panels, feeding equipment, etc., the cost of the autofeeders didn’t seem so bad.
The design of Heim’s autofeeder facility is very unique here, but quite common in Germany. The farm installed four igloo-like buildings that allow for good air quality, but still limit direct drafts on the calves.
Three stations feed about 72 calves pasteurized milk four times a day. The milk is filtered through a sock and a plate cooler drops the temperature to 39 degrees F. It’s stored in a cooler until it is pasteurized, and then it must be cooled back to 39 degrees within an hour to limit bacteria growth.
Individual attention from the first minute
According to Heim, “everything has to be clean, clean, clean” starting at birth to keep calves healthy in the autofeeder system.
The newborn is removed from the cow immediately and placed into a clean individual pen. Clean towels are used to dry the calf quickly and stimulate breathing. Navels are dipped with 7-percent iodine immediately and again at the colostrum feeding.
After the cow gives birth, she is led to the milking parlor to harvest her colostrum. The goal is to feed the calf 1.5 gallons of colostrum within 120 minutes of birth. The calf also receives an Inforce™ 3 vaccine when it’s about six hours old.
After the colostrum feeding, managers wait about 24 hours before delivering the next feeding. For two days, they use a 2-quart bottle to feed pasteurized milk to each calf. Newborns are kept in a superhutch next to the autofeeder facility. Once calves get up easily on their own and drink well, generally in about three days, they’re placed in a group pen.
Calves are fed 7.5 L for the first seven days; they are then ramped up to 10 L for the next 42 days before backing down for weaning at 56 days.
Heim said one of the big advantages with the autofeeders is that he can track each calf individually and program the machine to include any additives (extra calories, med packs, electrolytes, etc.) on a calf-by-calf basis.
Management is key
Heim emphasized the need to focus on cleaning protocols. The entire milk system is flushed daily when the tank is empty. Feeding station nipples are changed twice a week and hoses are replaced every two weeks.
“You get comfortable when the calves are doing well,” Heim said, “but you must commit to the cleaning to make the autofeeders work.”
Every morning, the calf team goes through the groups to visually evaluate each calf. They take temperatures of any calves with low consumption or visible signs of illness. This helps them to catch any disease early and treat accordingly.
In addition, Heim calibrates the machine once a week to ensure calves are receiving accurate feedings. Calves are weighed going into the pens and also at day 65 when they are weaned. Heim said his records prove the value of this system.
“Calves drink all the time,” he said. “We’re seeing about a 2.25-pound rate-of-gain with this system.”
Starting Strong - Calf Care