Proof on the farm
Perhaps most telling about the merits of group rearing are the opinions of the producers who are doing it. Less than a year ago, Sara Murray, calf manager at 700-cow Murcrest Farms, LLC, Copenhagen, N.Y., was treating nearly 100 percent of pre-weaned calves for scours, respiratory disease, or both. The farm’s fairly new pole calf barn, with curtain sidewalls and individual calf stalls, was remodeled in the summer of 2011 to house up to 10 groups of eight calves with three nipple feeders per pen. Murray feeds pasteurized, acidified waste milk free choice via a farm-fabricated feeding system. Her disease treatment rate has dropped to 21 percent, and she expects that number to go even lower as she learns more and tweaks the program.
Jon Beller believes the conversion to group rearing was a contributing factor in Beller Farms’ ability to expand from about 120 cows when they started group feeding in 2006 to 450 today. “The labor savings, improved calf performance and quality of replacements all have helped us grow,” he says.
And Mary Kelly of Kelly Farms, Rensselaer Falls, N.Y., says group rearing has put the joy back into raising calves on the 700-cow dairy. Kelly and the farm’s other calf manager, Ric Bartholomew, always have prided themselves on achieving exemplary lean-tissue growth rates in the calves they raised. But it came at a high price in terms of human capital.
When calves previously were raised in hutches and the farm’s converted tie-stall barn with individual pens, “Ric and I were spending three hours a day washing calf pails alone,” says Kelly. “In total, we spent eight hours a day, every day, on the morning feeding, treating, bedding and washing equipment, and that’s not counting the night feeding. Today, it’s down to one to two hours a day, and much of that time is focused on observing calf well-being. Raising calves is my passion, and it is difficult to express how rewarding it is to raise healthy, energetic, high-performing calves, and still have a life outside of the calf barn.”
Fisher says when he visits dairies considering adoption of an auto-feeding system, the most defensive person on the dairy usually is the calf manager. “They’re afraid their jobs are going to be eliminated,” he shares. “I always tell them, ‘if you can spot a sick calf from 30 feet away, then your job is safe.’ It’s not as if a robot just takes over and does everything. There is still a tremendous need for human management — it’s just a different kind of management. The calf feeders’ jobs may be eliminated, but the manager plays a critical role in the success of these systems.”
Veterinarian Thomas echoes those sentiments. He says the fact that producers often cite labor savings as their favorite benefit of group rearing can be somewhat misleading. “Yes, the labor savings are significant, the working conditions often are better, and time management is much more flexible,” he states. “But the overall goal of each operation still needs to be raising healthy, productive animals, and that means you still have to go into the barn every day and look at calves. It still takes time.”
Group rearing of calves gaining traction
Proof on the farm