Preweaned calves raised in group pens at Level-Vu Acres
When Mike and Tim Wettstein of Level-Vu Acres in Cambellsport, Wisconsin, built a new freestall barn for their heifers a few years ago, they had an opportunity to experiment with a new system to raise their preweaned calves and young heifers. The result is group housing that is easier to clean and manage.
Mike and Tim have farmed in partnership since taking over the farm from their parents in 2005. They milk about 120 cows. Previously, they raised their preweaned calves in individual pens in a hoop barn and one of the biggest challenges was that cleaning and bedding the individual pens was labor-intensive. When they moved the older heifers to the new barn, they started moving the younger calves into the group pens. They soon discovered they could maintain calf health and performance in the group pens while also making the process of cleaning and bedding much faster.
After birth, the calves are moved into warmers and then individual pens in the farm’s old dairy barn. They will stay in those pens for a couple of days during the summer and up to a week in the winter. The newborn calf receives 6 quarts of its dam’s colostrum soon after birth. The next day, it’s fed 2 quarts twice daily of Vita Plus Talon, a 25/25 milk replacer.
The calves are introduced to the group pens in pairs. Group size is usually four calves per pen. After five days to one week, the calves are bumped up to 3 quarts of milk replacer for the rest of the preweaned period. They are fed from bottles for the first two to three weeks before transitioning to buckets. After about a week, they are introduced to a texturized starter with 18% protein. The calves are trained to consume both their liquid and dry feeds through slant bars.
At seven weeks of age, the calves are weaned with one milk feeding for a week. After weaning, they are introduced to a small amount of hay; forage is introduced at three months of age. They will remain in the same barn until they reach about four months of age. They’ll continue receiving the same starter grain and forage until they are six months old.
The colostrum feeding is the biggest contributor to the success of their calf program, according to Mike. After that, the most important thing is to provide a clean and dry environment with good air quality. To meet that goal, the group pens are scraped out and rebedded weekly. The Wettsteins use a sawdust base with a thick layer of straw on top. For the weaned heifers, they will sometimes use soybean stubble over the sawdust.
The Wettsteins use the barn’s curtains to manage the air quality. On days when it’s about 50 degrees F, they will lift the bottoms of the curtains slightly to allow fresh air to enter at the calf level without chilling the calves. With this system, they rarely need to treat calves for respiratory disease. They have considered adding a fan to the barn for greater air movement.
Mike said he doesn’t foresee major changes to the farm’s calf and heifer program. In recent years, they have dialed in their calf numbers to raise only the heifers they need as replacements. They also have started experimenting with breeding their older cows to Angus bulls. For now, the goal is using their facilities to raise healthy calves in a way that is efficient in terms of both time and labor.
Starting Strong - Calf Care