May 22, 2022

A Year in the Life of a Farmer: Management practices focus on healthy cows

Consistent calving

Follow the Mitchell family throughout the entire year. Each month, look for updates about the family members and the decisions they make on their farm.

WINNEBAGO, Ill. — Caring for newborn calves is almost a daily activity for Aaron Mitchell.

“We want a consistent flow of 2-year-olds calving in,” said Aaron Mitchell who together with his brother, John, are partners in Mitchell Dairy and Grain LLC.

“We have a 35% to 40% cull rate, so the goal is to have about 20 heifer calves born per month,” Mitchell said. “We have cows calving when it’s 100 degrees or minus 20 degrees and each have different challenges, but we hardly have any days off from calving.”

A portion of the herd has been bred with Angus semen for several years. In September 2021, the dairymen moved to using almost 100% sexed semen or beef semen.

“Most of the heifers are getting sexed semen the first two breedings and then beef semen,” Mitchell said. “A small percentage of the cows get sexed semen and most get Lim-Flex beef semen to get a higher birth weight calf.”

The goal is to eliminate the birth of any Holstein bull calves.

“We get about one in 10 bull calves and those we market through a sale facility in Wisconsin,” Mitchell said.

Beef cross calves are also marketed through the Wisconsin sale barn.

“Those calves bring about a $100 premium over a Holstein calf,” Mitchell said.

“We’ve talked about raising the beef cross calves, but we don’t have space so that might be a future goal,” he said. “Some dairymen are putting beef embryos into their cows, so that might be something we do in the future.”

Breeding decisions are an important aspect for the 400-cow registered Holstein herd.

“Before we breed the cows we have to decide which semen to use so that two years down the road, we have the right number Holstein heifers,” Mitchell said. “It costs a lot to raise heifers, so it doesn’t make sense to have too many extra.”

Close-up cows are moved into a pen in the free-stall barn, which also includes individual calving pens for the females.

“Those pens are bedded with straw to give them a nice clean place to calve, so the calves start off right,” Mitchell said. “We hand-feed the calves colostrum to make sure they develop a good immune system.”

Calves are given respiratory and scour vaccines at birth, their navels are dipped and all heifer calves receive an RFID button ear tag.

“That tag will stay with them for the rest of their life,” Mitchell said. “The tag has a management number that we use for day to day activities on the farm, as well as the 15-digit registration number.”

The calf barn has individual pens and the calves receive two quarts of milk, twice a day initially, and that amount gradually increases to one gallon of milk, twice a day.

“At about one month of age, the calves are moved into a pen that’s in our old holding pen and milking parlor that we retrofitted into group housing,” Mitchell said.

Calves are fed with a GEA automated feeder that has two feeding stalls.

“The feeder reads the RFID tag, which identifies the calf to determine how much milk she gets,” Mitchell said. “Two weeks before they are due to wean off, the milk is bumped down to get to two liters.”

This reduction in milk feeding is much better for the calves, Mitchell said.

“It makes the transition to eating starter and drinking more water a lot smoother,” he said. “We tell the computer the age of the calf and it is programmed to deliver the correct amount of milk.”

Managing the calves with the robotic feeder was a learning curve for Mitchell when it was first installed about two and a half years ago.

“We used to move the calves when they were a little younger, but we found out that waiting until they were at least one month old was better,” Mitchell said.

“I give a probiotic to the calves a day after they move to the group housing to make sure their gut is healthy which has seemed to significantly help with the transition,” he said.

Just recently, Mitchell switched from feeding a plant-based protein milk replacer to a whole-milk based protein milk replacer.

“In the calf barn with the individual stalls, we feed pasteurized waste milk, so we want to see if the protein in a similar form will have a difference,” he said. “Originally we didn’t do that because the milk-based protein replacer is more expensive.”

Mitchell expects he will have a pretty good idea of which milk replacer works the best for the calves after about a month.

“If we don’t see a difference, we’ll go back to the cheaper replacer,” he said.

Calves are weaned at 8 weeks of age, put into groups of 10 heifers and moved to one of six pens on the farm.

“They get a pink eye vaccine and they will stay in these pens until they are 5 to 6 months old, when they move off site to a farm we rent,” Mitchell said. “This will be the first time they are fed a TMR.”

At 11 months old, heifers move back to the breeding pens on the Mitchell farm and each one receives an activity collar to track their heats.

“The youngest heifers are bred at 12 months of age, but it’s based more on size,” Mitchell said. “We want the heifers to weigh from 750 to 800 pounds and the sweet spot is 23 months for first calf age on our farm.”

Females that are confirmed three-months pregnant are moved to a custom grower facility until one month before calving.

“The off-site facilities are all within five miles of our farm,” Mitchell said.

The goal for heifer raising, Mitchell said, is to keep the calves healthy and make sure they receive a good vaccination program.

“Vaccines are not cheap, but in the long run they pay for themselves,” Mitchell said.

“Anything that sets the calves back means they won’t fully achieve what they could have for milk production,” he said. “If the calves have respiratory issues, there can be scarring on the lungs and they will never be quite the same, and even when you think you have them back to full health, they can relapse.”

For calves with scours, Mitchell said, the focus is to keep them hydrated.

“But you never get back the growth that was lost when the calves were trying to get back to healthy,” Mitchell said.

“The last couple of years we’ve had pink-eye issues at the farm we rent, so that’s the main reason we added the pink-eye vaccine to avoid treating as many heifers,” he said. “Pink eye use to be seasonal, but anymore with the different bugs that cause it, it’s an all-year thing, but we haven’t seen as much through this winter.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor