Continual Improvement Top Theme at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy
When you visit Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy in Kewaunee, Wis., one of the first things you’ll probably notice is the pride all employees take in their jobs and their farm – and for good reason.
The farm was founded in 1946 by current owner John Pagel’s father. Today, Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy
is the largest family-owned dairy in Wisconsin with 4,600 cattle and 7,500 acres of cropland. The farm has embraced technology in order to provide optimum care for the cattle and natural resources. This includes state-of-the-art freestall barns, a 72-stall rotating parlor and a methane digester that produces enough electricity to power 800 homes – almost the entire city of Kewaunee.
Choosing the Right Facilities
Just down the road from the main farm, you’ll find the Pagel’s Ponderosa calf operation where technology and animal care also reign supreme. Herd Manager Chris Szydel has worked at the Ponderosa for 15 years. He said the heifer calves originally went to a customer grower, but he and the Pagels were unsatisfied with the death loss. About four years ago, they decided to bring the calves home where they could be under their own supervision.
Szydel said they did a lot of research when choosing the best facilities for their calves. They knew they wanted to have barns so that employees could work inside and be more comfortable. The first barn they built included 3- by 8-foot individual hutches. It also featured a central tube for ventilation, but they later decided to move the ventilation system behind the calves to minimize respiratory issues and are happy with that choice.
Continual improvement is a key theme at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy. That’s why, when it came time to build the second barn, Szydel and Pagel decided to go with a new design and install 4- by 8-foot hutches to give the calves more turnaround room. They also equipped the barn with a back ventilation system right away.
The third barn is Szydel’s favorite so far. That’s because it features low sidewalls to allow for better ventilation in the pens. A space between the wall and the pens protects calves from drafts, but still allows for air to move through the backs of the pens.
Right now, the Ponderosa is also housing calves in hutches because the barns are full. Eventually, they’ll build another barn and Szydel said that too will be a bit different than the other barns as they work to constantly improve conditions for their youngstock.
The Ponderosa currently has 2,800 youngstock onsite including heifers; 450 of those animals are under two months and another 450 fall in the two- to four-month category. Calves are fed flash-pasteurized milk twice a day. The milk cart is equipped with an automatic dispense and cleaning system to provide consistency and limit exposure to pathogens.
Calves are introduced to grain after the first week. They are also bumped up from 2 quarts to 3 quarts at day 7 and continue on that program until Day 40. At that point, they’re transitioned to a once-a-day feeding for a week before going off milk. After that, calves will transition into 11-head group pens. Feeders will initially topdress the starter with a TMR and gradually transition to a TMR topdressed with starter.
Care and Consistency Essential
Four employees work at the Ponderosa calf facilities. Szydel said they’ve found that the key to success is providing as much consistency as possible in the first week of calves’ lives to ensure they get off to the best start. He said this is especially challenging – and especially important – during fall and spring weather changes.
That’s where good communication becomes so important. Szydel, who oversees the entire herd, meets with farm managers weekly to discuss what’s happening at each location and how each facility will need to adapt to optimize care and productivity. Creativity is a primary objective too and no facility or management strategy will ever be “good enough.” The farm will continue to adapt new research, ideas and innovation as it seeks to always provide the best care for the animals, the environment and the employees.