Virtual Farm Tour: MDS Dairy

Posted on November 8, 2012 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
MDS Dairy Focuses on Improvement Through Technology and Teamwork
MDS Dairy in western Wisconsin isn’t your average dairy business.  Phil Mlsna owns the farm, which includes two dairies, located in Sparta and Westby, and a total of 2,250 animals. He is also the owner of Mlsna Dairy Supply, Inc., which provides milking equipment, calf feeders, building design and more for dairy producers in the area. That side of the business is focused on providing customers with the best products possible and service and expertise to match. Mlsna often takes a firsthand look at how the equipment will work by trying it on his own farm.

Introducing automatic calf feeders
That’s certainly the case with the calf operation. According to farm manager Jared Hemmersbach, MDS Dairy installed automatic calf feeders about three years ago. It was one of the first farms in the state to explore the new technology. Hemmersbach, who has been a part of the MDS team for nine years, said they were initially interested in the idea of reducing labor demands and using staff’s time more efficiently. Autofeeders also offered the chance to track daily gains for a more accurate picture of calf performance.
Today, the farm has two Holm & Laue autofeeders at two different calf raising sites. One site is a converted hay shed with 5-foot side walls and an open face while the other is a converted machine shed with the sides removed and air tubes installed to provided increased ventilation. Newborn calves are placed in hutches for about two weeks before moving to the group pens with autofeeders. Because the group pens are managed on an all-in-all-out basis, this date fluctuates based on the flushes of calvings. The groups of 20 to 25 calves will remain in those pens for 56 days when they are weaned from milk.
Hemmersbach said switching to automatic feeders came with a learning curve for both him and the three calf workers. First, the farm put more focus on respiratory issues because the calves are housed in groups where nose-to-nose contact cannot be prevented. With “so many moving parts,” it also took time to understand the machines and how to troubleshoot challenges. Hemmersbach said the winter was especially challenging at first as hoses, nipples and bowls froze because of their exposure to colder temperatures.
Gaining insight from outside consultants
That’s where working as a team becomes so valuable to MDS Dairy. Hemmersbach said he relies on recommendations and insight from outside experts like Ann Hoskins, Vita Plus calf products coordinator. Hoskins has worked with the farm to calculate optimal diets for the growing calves. She also switched them to Vita Plus Calf Precision, a 24/18 milk replacer that works especially well with automatic feeding systems.
Dr. John Weber, the farm’s veterinarian, is also an integral part of the MDS team. He set up a treatment program that calls for temping and treating calves twice a week. Hemmersbach said the response to this program has been great as it keeps the calf team from getting behind on treatments. Results include faster response to treatments and a big improvement in calf loss. Weber also helped set protocols for employees and made sure that these guidelines are simple and easy to follow. Hemmersbach said it’s good to work with outside consultants because they can be direct with employees and explain the “why” behind new techniques.
Training and working as a team
But the employees at MDS Dairy have no problem taking on those responsibilities themselves. Hemmersbach described his management style as very “hands off.”  He said he works with employees initially to get them trained in their new positions, but then let’s them work independently, providing guidance and answering questions only as needed. As a result, MDS calf raisers have a sense of ownership for the calf program and work harder to improve calf care. They understand the necessity of following protocols regardless of the situation in order to give calves consistent care.
Hemmersbach said he looks for employees that are passionate, motivated, hardworking and willing to accept change. They take care of the rest. He said he learned that management style from Mlsna, who gave him the same kind of responsibilities and freedom when he started working with MDS Dairy.
“It’s the employees that do everything,” he said. “It’s a team effort.”
The future of the MDS Dairy calf program
Looking forward, the MDS Dairy team has no intentions of slowing down. It is always looking for opportunities to improve care and efficiency through new technologies. In the long term, the farm would like to have all of its calves at one site. As of now, the heifers are divided amongst seven small farms in the area before entering the milking herd. MDS would like to bring those animals to one location in the future as well.
Hemmersbach said the team is already researching what makes an ideal facility for youngstock. They’re looking at everything from ventilation to bedding to new technologies. As they learn, they share what they know with Mlsna Dairy Supply customers so that those producers hear firsthand accounts of what equipment works and what doesn’t. As is true in so many cases, experience is the best teacher when it comes to new technologies at MDS Dairy. That’s why Hemmersbach can say confidently that the farm will continue to strengthen, improve and work toward the goal of having the best facilities possible.
When asked about what he sees as the future of the calf operation at MDS Dairy, Hemmersbach said, “We will have the ultimate calf facility.”

Category: Farm tours
Starting Strong - Calf Care