Virtual Farm Tour: Sponem Valley View Dairy, LLC – Wisconsin
Steve Sponem grew up on his parents’ dairy farm in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. At the time he and his now wife, Karen, started dating, the 30 heifer calves born per year did very well in their group pens in the milking barn.
But that system couldn’t last forever. The couple married in 1982 and the family grew the milking herd. That meant the calves needed to go outside into 12 wooden hutches. While the calves did very well in the hutches, Steve and his parents thought it was miserable for Karen to feed calves outside in the winter time. They built a calf barn with hutches inside – and the results were “awful,” according to Karen. She couldn’t tolerate the disease challenges calves faced in the barn.
By that time, Steve and Karen had bought the farm and decided to return to a hutch system, placing 36 hutches next to the milking barn. The old calf barn was changed to a prefresh barn, which Karen said was very handy. Next, the couple’s two sons, Travis and Dustin, joined the business and it was time to grow again. The family added a freestall barn and expanded to 45 hutches.
When their daughter, Ashley, graduated from college in 2011, she took over management of the calf program and her husband, Scott, joined the family business three years later. In 2012, the family formed a limited liability company (LLC) and Sponem Valley View Dairy, LLC was born. Expanding the milking herd barn meant that the calf hutches needed to move once more – this time further up a hill and next to a brand-new heifer barn.
The calf program today
When calves are born, Ashley dips their navels with 7-percent iodine and moves them as soon as possible to hutches. Because the hutches are removed from the milking barn area, she uses a cart to safely transport newborns up the hill. Once placed in the hutch, the calf receives its vaccinations (Calf-Guard, Inforce 3 and Bovine Ecolizer). The navel is dipped again and the calf receives two feedings of colostrum. If Ashley doesn’t have enough quality colostrum from the cow, she substitutes it with Secure 175. To Ashley, this is the most important step.
“To have healthy calves, you have to get the colostrum in there right away,” she said.
Recently, Ashley began incorporating dehorning paste into the newborn protocol as well. She said she likes the paste because it is less stressful on the calf and less labor intensive than burning.
Until they moved to the newest facilities, all calves were fed by bottle. Because transporting the bottles would be far too cumbersome, Sponems invested in a milk cart that mixes the replacer and can be pulled easily up the hill to feed calves in pails. For the first 10 days, the calves are fed 2 quarts of Calf’s 1st Choice milk replacer at each feeding. After 10 days, they are ramped up to 3 quarts until about seven weeks. They receive fresh water after every feeding and are introduced to starter right away.
Just before they are weaned, Ashley mixes the starter with a texturized grower. To wean the calves, she switches them to water only at feeding time for one week while they are still in their hutches. Then they are placed in the heifer barn in groups of eight.
The future of the family farm
“It’s fun to look around and see how much things have changed since we farmed with Steve’s parents,” Karen said.
Those changes are likely to continue as the Sponems incorporate new ideas and strategies on the farm. They currently milk about 240 cows, but the goal is to meet the current facility’s capacity for 300. They are also toying with the idea of building a calf barn for the young calves where the hutches currently sit.
Whatever they do, calf health will be the top priority. The farm has only lost two calves per year the last four years – and neither Ashley nor Karen wants that to change.
A focus on family will also remain constant. Karen said each person is important to the dairy and specializes in various roles, yet everyone steps up to help each other whenever needed.
“We all have our spots where we shine,” Karen said.
“It really is about family,” Ashley added. “It’s all of us that make the family farm work.”
Starting Strong - Calf Care