Healthy Calves = Healthy Cows

Accelerated calf program yields growthy heifers. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

Rarely do dairy operations get the chance to design and build a complete calf and heifer facility. Usually, it’s a piecemeal affair at best—remodeling or expanding existing facilities.

So when Jim, Chris and Steve Leick got the chance to build a calf and heifer facility from the ground up on their Stratford, Wis., farm in 2014, they took full advantage of the opportunity. They built a nursery/calf barn, a grower/breeding barn and tacked on bred heifer pens onto their existing transition-cow facility, which they call their “vacation destination.”

Jim, and his second cousins, Chris and Steve combined dairy operations in 2013, adding onto Chris’ and Steve’s freestall barn and building a new parlor. At that time, the facility housed 450 cows, but has since doubled with internal growth.

The expansion also required space for heifers, and the Leicks spent nearly seven figures to house 600 head of replacements. The facilities are designed for accelerated heifer growth to provide 30 well-grown, genetically superior replacements each month for the 900- cow milking herd.

“We invest a lot of time and resources into growing our calves,” Jim says. “You need a healthy calf to get a healthy cow.”

The goal is to grow heifers so they thrive in the milking string, Chris says. The program begins with an accelerated calf-feeding program and continues to intensely feed and manage those calves so they continue to grow and mature.

“The goal is to raise a calf that doesn’t need antibiotics or other treatment. If you get healthy animals through her entire life, that should equate to a longer career,” Chris explains.

The whole point of the Leicks’ heifer program is to produce well-grown replacements genetically superior to everything else in the herd. “We genomic test all our heifer calves, and we try to raise only the heifers we need—which is about 30 heifers per month,” Jim says.

Only the top 50% of cows are bred to conventional Holstein semen. The other 50% is bred to Limousin or Angus semen.

The top third of first-calf heifers get sexed semen for the first service and conventional semen on next services. The rest receive conventional semen or are tagged “do not breed” if they are lower on genetics or perform poorly.

The majority of virgin heifers receive sexed semen for up to three services, conventional semen on fourth service and beef semen for a fifth. The bottom 10% receive beef semen or are culled, based on genomics or health issues. Services per conception average 1.7 in heifers.

There is no temptation to raise calves sired by beef semen, Jim says. These crosses typically command a $150 to $300 sale barn premium per head, depending on the beef market. Those premiums can then be poured back into the operation to optimize heifer growth.


Long, narrow pens in the nursery make for more frequent calf interaction and socialization because calves tend to lie along pen walls.

Newborn calves are moved to the nursery within an hour of birth and receive a gallon of thawed, warmed and pasteurized colostrum. A second colostrum feeding from the calf’s dam is given within eight hours. Calves are then brought to the nursery, a separate room within the nursery/ calf barn equipped with 10 individual hutches. Calves stay in hutches up to five days.

They are then introduced to the first stage of the calf barn, which has four long pens—80'x11'. The pens are sized for 18 calves, or roughly 35 sq. ft. per calf.

Two automated Forster Technik calf feeders each feed two pens of calves. For the first 45 days, calves are fed milk replacer free choice, though the computer feeders won’t dispense more than 2.5 liters of milk replacer every two hours per calf. The goal is to have calves consume 180 lb. of milk powder by the time they are weaned at 56 days of age.

Calves have access to free choice water, warmed to 90°F to encourage consumption. Free choice, 20% protein calf starter is also offered.

All calves are weighed at birth and every 10 days while in the nursery calf barn. That allows the Leicks to track gains. “Our calves normally double their birth weight by seven weeks,” Jim says. Average daily gain is about 2 lb.

The floors of the pens are solid concrete, which is overlaid with rejected fracking sand, then a layer of sawdust and finally amply bedded with wheat straw. The objective is to make sure urine is absorbed into the bottom of the bedding pack and kept away from calves. Fresh straw is added twice a week.

Jim or one of his employees walk each pen six times each day and remove manure and soiled straw. Every two weeks, the entire bedding pack is removed and a new pack is laid down.

The frequent pen walk-throughs also allow Jim or employees to spot sick calves. While the automated feeders will detect feeding aberrations, such as decreased intake and drinking speed changes, walking pens and observing calves is still the best way to spot problems, Jim believes.

The barn itself has 12' curtain-sided sidewalls. Two positive pressure ventilation tubes, each tube centered over two pens, provides constant fresh air to the calves.

The Leicks also provide an exercise ball in each pen five days a week, Monday through Friday. The balls are removed each night and cleaned. Re-introducing the balls to the pen each day provides calves novelty, getting them up to play and exercise.

At around 42 days, calves are slowly weaned off milk replacer. At weaning, they’ll be eating 1.5 lb. of starter and will increase that to 6 lb. or 7 lb. two weeks later.


A view of the weaning barn with the bedded pack at the back of each pen.

Calves are then moved as a group to the grower portion of the barn, which has six pens. Four are sized to hold 18 calves, and two are sized for 36 head as calves grow larger.

The new calves have 24-hour access to calf starter. The first pen also has a grooming brush and a mineral lick tub. Both provide activities for calves, distracting them from sucking on others after the stress of weaning.

After two and half weeks in the barn, they are introduced to an 18% calf grower pellet. “As they get up to 10 lb. per day of grower pellet and 12 weeks of age, we’ll add grass hay to the diet,” Jim says.

At 22 weeks, at about 425 lb., calves are introduced to a total mixed ration for the first time. By six months of age, they’ll average 450 lb. per head.


The grower barn has four pens of 50 freestalls. The goal is to have one freestall per heifer.

At this point, the calves are then moved to the heifer grower barn. Here, they’re introduced to freestalls for the first time. The barn has four pens of 50 stalls each. “We don’t like to overstock, and we keep numbers to one heifer per stall,” Jim says.

Heifers progress through the barn until they reach the breeding pen. A group of 20 heifers from each pen is weighed every three weeks to ensure growth is on track. By the time heifers get to 11 months of age, they weigh 875 lb. At that point, they are moved to the breeding pen.

“We will breed as young as 10 and a half months if the heifer weighs 900 lb.,” Jim says, “and we haven’t had any problems. But our average age at breeding is 12 and a half months, and the majority are pregnant within 30 days of that. Our average service per conception is 1.7.

“Our average age at calving is 21 and a half months with heifers weighing 1,200 lb. to 1,250 lb.,” he says. “By eight weeks in milk, they will be producing 85 lb. to 90 lb. of milk.”

The Leicks’ heifer raising program isn’t cheap. Jim estimates his total cost (feed, labor, buildings, etc.) comes to $2,500 per head or $4.10 per day.

But he says they are only raising the best of their genetics, which the Leicks hope will provide longer-lived cattle. Already, their involuntary cull rate is 20% to 22%. The hope is as these high-performing heifers mature, the need to voluntarily cull for production will be reduced. “We want to raise the average age of our cow herd from 4 and a half years to 6 or 7,” he says.

If that can be achieved, the Leicks will need to raise just 20 replacements per month, 50% less than they’re currently doing. “You need a healthy calf to get a healthy cow,” he says.


Note: This article appears in the January 2018 magazine issue of Dairy Herd Management