Virtual Farm Tour: UW-Madison Dairy Farm
If you’ve never visited a university research farm, you might envision state-of-the-art equipment and extreme precision in every task. While that holds true in some respects – especially with certain research trials – the university farm does not greatly differ from the average dairy.
The Emmons Blaine Dairy Center is one of 12 crop and livestock units at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arlington Research Station in Arlington, Wisconsin. The farm milks about 480 cows. In addition, close-up heifers from the Marshfield Research Station come to Arlington to calve and newborns from the UW campus are brought to the site as well.
The calf facilities at Arlington have capacity for 80 heifer calves in hutches. Three fulltime calf managers are responsible for the maternity area as well as the calves. In addition, two other UW employees are trained to fill in with calf care as needed.
Andi Cooper, a research technician, is one of those employees. She has worked at the farm for about five years, assisting with research trials as well as regular herd management.
According to Cooper, the team rarely has to treat a calf and, when it does, a dose of electrolytes is typically enough to bring the calf back to full speed. Cooper said that’s not due to any advanced calf care; rather, it’s the result of a strong focus on the basics of cleanliness and communication.
Calves are fed 4 quarts of high quality colostrum, preferably by bottle. Cows are milked soon after calving and the colostrum is labeled and froze for future use. Any colostrum that looks questionable is not used.
Calf managers track what colostrum is fed to each calf. That way, if the calf has health issues down the road, they can trace it back to the dam to determine if it was a dam-calf issue or a colostrum issue. If it’s a colostrum issue, managers will see if any other calves were fed from the same dam and take precautions accordingly.
Navels are sprayed with a 7-percent tincture iodine. Cooper said she much prefers the spray bottle versus dipping navels because it prevents cross-contamination between calves. Aside from a dose of clostridium antitoxin, Cooper said they don’t administer many vaccines or treatments to the newborns because they have a comprehensive dry cow vaccination program.
Nutrition and housing
Calves are placed into individual hutches and fed 2 quarts of pasteurized milk twice daily for the first couple of days. They amp up to 3 quarts, fed by bottle, until about two weeks of age. Next, they are bucket-trained and receive 4 quarts daily.
To wean, calves are transitioned to a 1-quart milk feeding at six to seven weeks. This depends on grain intake; calves must regularly consume 4 to 5 pounds of starter before they are weaned. Intakes are recorded at each feeding to ensure calves are consuming at that level. They’ll remain in the individual hutches for another week before moving to superhutches at about eight weeks.
Groups of four calves are placed in the superhutches for about four weeks. They are introduced to free-choice hay at this time. At 12 weeks, they’ll move to the heifer facilities at the Marshfield Research Station, which is about two hours away.
Keeping everything clean
Cooper explained the farm’s focus on cleanliness applies to all aspects of calf care. The hoses and inflations used to harvest colostrum are cleaned after each use and replaced monthly.
Hutches are power-washed between calves. Bedding is cleared away and, if possible, the ground in that spot is left open a few days before a new calf is placed in the hutch.
The milk transfer tank is cleaned daily, alternating between an acid and a detergent wash. Milk and starter pails are regularly collected, replaced and sanitized as well.
All of that cleaning seems like it would require a huge investment of time, but Sandy Trower, herd manager, explained it’s simply a matter of “trading labor.” When things are kept clean, calves are healthy, which means the calf team doesn’t have to spend time treating sick animals.
Staying on the same page
Cooper emphasized the need for clear communication. She said protocols for ever calf management task are posted throughout the facilities and they’ve designed ways to make it easy to track calves.
“You always know what you’re walking into,” Cooper said. “Everything is written down.”
In addition, the calf managers do an excellent job of passing information to each other. The morning and afternoon shifts overlap, so the managers walk the calves together and discuss any issues. The afternoon manager leaves a very detailed note of any changes for the morning manager.
“It just makes such a difference,” Cooper said.
Both Cooper and Trower are proud of the farm’s calf program. They said they want to set the example for excellent calf performance and do so in a manner that can be applied to any commercial dairy. Cooper said she can speak from experience.
“There are things we do here that I try taking back to my parents’ farm because I see that it works,” she said.
Starting Strong - Calf Care