Virtual Farm Tour: McAllister Family Dairy

Posted on August 4, 2023 in Starting Strong - Calf Care

McAllister Family Dairy’s calf care facility hits the mark for calf health and labor efficiency

The owners of McAllister Family Dairy in New Vienna, Iowa, wanted to build a new calf care facility that could provide the best environment possible for raising healthy calves.  When designing the facility, they focused on excellent ventilation and labor efficiency.  In early 2022, calves moved into the new barn, which has space for 98 pre- and post-weaned calves.  The farm managers are pleased with how the facility has met their goals in the last 18 months.

The dairy is a partnership between brothers Ted and Rob McAllister.  They grow crops on about 420 tillable acres and care for animals at three sites. Currently, the milking herd includes 240 Holsteins and 70 Jerseys.

Megan McAllister, Ted’s wife, is a seventh-generation dairy farmer.  In addition to numerous other farm responsibilities, Megan cares for the calves along with her mother-in-law, Mary Sue.

The calf barn was built on top of a hill in an open space to take advantage of natural ventilation.  Megan said she’s glad they did not skimp on the barn height as it’s critical to successful ventilation.  Megan can easily adjust the side curtains so that the barn has adequate airflow in any season while still protecting the calves from the elements.

A wall divides the calf barn in half to separate the pre-weaned and post-weaned calves and limit pathogen spread between these groups.  Pre-weaned calves are raised in individual pens, which are placed 3 to 4 feet from the outside wall to protect them from drafts.

Megan said, overall, she is highly satisfied with the barn’s ventilation as she rarely deals with respiratory challenges.  The McAllisters are considering installation of large fans in the post-weaned section of the barn for optimal air quality.

Labor efficiency
“In designing the facility, we really focused on making everything easy to operate and easy to clean so one person could manage the work responsibilities,” explained Megan.  “If you make it easy to operate there is a better chance of getting the job done right.”

A well-designed milk mixing room includes in-floor heat and is adjacent to the pre-weaned section of the barn.  A large sink and bottle washer make cleaning and sanitizing feeding equipment a fast task.  Megan pointed out that the team put wheels on anything it could, including storage shelves, a large stainless-steel table, and a cart to hold a pallet of milk replacer.  This allows equipment and materials to be quickly, easily, and safely moved by just one person.

The mixing room, pre-weaned section and post-weaned section of the barn all have overhead doors for easy access.  The calf starter and grower bins are located near the center of the barn and grain flows directly into the building.  Megan and Mary Sue use a cart to deliver grain to calves in both sections of the barn.

In the post-weaned area, Megan said the team wanted to be able to enter each pen without having to step through another pen.  Gates located on the front of each pen provide easy access and also include a headlock that can be used during vaccinations and treatments.  The weaned heifers access their grain from raised troughs and free-choice hay from racks mounted above the troughs.

Calf care and health
Megan and the team are focused on calf health starting on day one.  Within the first two hours of life, calves receive 3 quarts of maternal colostrum that scores above 22% on the Brix scale.  During the same time frame, the calf’s navel is dipped with an iodine solution, a genomic sample is taken and dehorning paste is applied.  Six to 10 hours later, the calf receives a second 3-quart feeding of colostrum.

In the cold months, newborn calves are placed in sanitized warming pens in the mixing room.  Once dry, calves move from the warming area and into their individual pens.  Newborn calves are fitted with jackets to help maintain body temperature and pens are deep-bedded with straw.  All pens are bedded every five days as Megan said keeping the calves dry is a top priority.

At the third feeding, calves switch to Vita Plus Talon, a 25/25 milk replacer, mixed to 13% solids concentration.  A scale mounted to the edge of the mixing room table and a Milk Taxi allow for consistent mixing at every feeding.  The Milk Taxi also provides consistency in feeding temperature and volume fed.

Holsteins calves start with 3 quarts of milk replacer twice daily.  Jersey calves start with 2 quarts for the first five to seven days before bumping up to 3 quarts.  All calves drink from bottles until 14 days of age when they switch to pails.  They are bumped up to 4 quarts of milk replacer for the remainder of the preweaning period.  Between eight and nine weeks of age, the calves are weaned with a single milk feeding each day for a week.

The McAllisters use shallow bowls to introduce small amounts of calf starter beginning on day three of life.  As grain consumption increases, they are switched to a pail and offered starter according to calves’ intakes.  Calves also have free-choice access to fresh, warm water to stimulate starter intake.

Megan said they can visually see that calves double their birthweight by the time they are weaned.  They remain in their individual pens for one week after weaning and are then placed in the post-weaning section of the barn in groups of seven.

In the first two group pens, calves receive the same starter grain as they had in their individual pens and they are introduced to dry hay.  When they graduate to the third pen, they switch to a grower grain.  They move out of this barn at approximately six months of age, but remain in the same groups of seven until they are 10 months old.

After caring for calves through all four seasons in the new barn, Megan said she is very happy with its design and the environment it provides to help her raise healthy calves.

“It’s fun to work in a facility where raising healthy calves is easy,” she said.  “Sick calves are not fun to manage.”

Sharing her story
The barn’s efficiencies also allow Megan and her mother-in-law time to focus on their other farm responsibilities.  Megan is a key player in milking, hoof trimming, administering vaccinations, moving cattle, and managing herd records on PCDART.  Since January, she’s also been training with Mary Sue to do the farm’s bookwork.  Megan is quick to credit the entire team – Ted, Rob, Mary Sue and two part-time employees – for all they do to make the day go smoothly.

With a passion for agriculture, Megan feels a responsibility to share her family’s farming story with the non-farming public so they can have a better understanding of the high-quality care they provide to their animals and land.  You can follow Megan on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

Category: Animal handling
Animal health
Calf and heifer nutrition
Colostrum management
Facility design
Starting Strong - Calf Care