Virtual Farm Tour: Homestead Dairy, LLC
When you drive past Homestead Dairy, LLC in Plymouth, Indiana, you’ll see a row of hutches strung along a corn field about a half-mile from the main dairy. No, these hutches do not house any calves. Instead, just across the road from the corn field, you will find three calf barns with autofeeders that can hold 200 calves each. In the main office, you’ll find Brian Houin, the farm manager, doing everything in his power to never use those hutches again.
What Houin has achieved, since switching from hutches to barns and autofeeders a year ago, is a 2.4 to 2.7 average daily gain (ADG) in his calves, a number he never dreamed he would see with his calves in hutches.
“I just can’t replicate what I’m doing in a hutch,” Houin said.
Focus on improved growth
Before deciding to build the calf barns, the team at Homestead used to feed 3 quarts of whole milk with a Vita Plus vitamin supplement three times a day to calves in hutches. This produced a 1.7 to 1.8 ADG, which Houin thought was good. Most nutrition consultants and calf raisers would probably agree, but Houin felt something was missing that could help move his calves from good to great.
After working with his nutritional balancing software and Purdue University, he discovered protein was his limiting factor in growth. This began his search for a higher protein supplement. Dr. Noah Litherland, Vita Plus dairy youngstock technical specialist, suggested Houin try Calf Magnify, a Vita Plus whole milk additive.
Houin gave it a try and saw astounding results.
“Since April, there have been almost no scours,” Houin said. “I saw a 2.7 ADG and I’ve even bred a couple at 10 months because they were big enough.”
But feed isn’t the only factor playing a role in this accomplishment. Calf management and comfort is also high on Houin’s priority list.
In the winter, Houin usually packs the pens with extra straw bedding, but he decided to practice this year-round. In addition, ventilation is a major priority for him with two positive pressure ventilation tubes running parallel to each other and eight fans running to keep the calves cool in the summer. To Houin, proper ventilation is the number one factor to determine if calves will be successful or not.
Houin’s grouping strategy is unique compared with other autofeeder systems. After analyzing data relating the number of calves per pen to the ADG observed, Houin made the decision to open up the pens from 30 calves per pen to 60 calves per pen.
“When it was closed and at 30 calves on one nipple, the timid calf lost out,” Houin said. “There are more options in a larger group.”
He said the calves were so much more receptive when he opened up the pen, and it shows in his numbers. At 30 calves on one nipple, they saw a 2.2 ADG, but once they went to 60 calves on two nipples, it went back up to 2.4 ADG.
This approach appears to work as the calves appear visibly relaxed and playful. As he watched one calf nose the tether ball hung in the pen, Houin said, in two weeks, they will be monsters towering over it.
But this acts as a good example that one size does not fit all calf operations, and Houin knows that.
“We’ve been doing a lot we were told not to do,” Houin said, “such as putting them on the feeder on day one and not backgrounding calves.”
Looking for new improvement opportunities
The most recent change was to wean the calves at 56 days instead of 63 days. With more than 300 calves expected this month, Houin is nervously optimistic because it should save feed costs, but he doesn’t want to sacrifice gains.
Luckily, Houin is a very good record keeper, which helps him keep a short leash on the operation and, if he sees a problem, he can fix it promptly. This allows him to measure his growth to industry averages and make changes accordingly to stay competitive, which he believes is necessary in this industry.
In the future, Houin looks to build another barn, hopefully by next spring. He said the barn will pay for itself by raising bigger and healthier calves. For his calves, he hopes to maintain results.
“I don’t know if I could expect much improvement,” Houin said, “but we want to maintain levels and see how they perform later in life.”
It is this dedication to understanding nutrition requirements, calf comfort and industry trends that will allow Homestead Dairy, LLC to continue to produce bigger and healthier calves.
Starting Strong - Calf Care