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Poly-C Farms’ new barn promotes calf health

Progressive Dairyman Editor Jenna Hurty-Person Published on 07 July 2016
calves in individual stalls

When Cor and Cathy Haagsma, owners of Poly-C Farms in Ponoka, Alberta, built their calf barn in 2015, they strongly considered installing automated feeders. However, they and their employees decided they would miss out on visual contact and inspection too much during feeding calves to make the switch from buckets to auto-feeders.

In addition, since the bottle calves still need to be fed and the auto-feeder needs to be cleaned daily, they felt that the time savings would be minimal. Their solution: a new four-room, all-in-all-out calf barn with individual pens and no automatic feeders.

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The first group of calves on the 400-cow Holstein dairy moved into the new barn in July 2015. So far the Haagsmas say they’ve been pleased with the building. Not only has it made feeding calves in the winter much more pleasant, Cor says, “The calves are healthier, and they’re growing better, too, because they’re not subject to the elements.”

calf in individual stall

In addition, he says the barn stays much cooler in the summer than the hutches the calves were previously housed in.

The barn consists of four separate rooms with one central hallway connecting them. Each room has 22 individual stalls with removable panels – 11 on each side – and is an all-in-all-out system. At 3 months old, the Haagsmas remove the panels, creating two group pens in each room. The calves stay in the pens until 4 to 4.5 months old, when they move to the heifer barn.

With calves, as always, cleanliness is key to minimizing disease, so right after the heifers move out, the room is emptied of all bedding, pressure washed and then disinfected with a foaming cleaner. Cor says they chose to use a foaming cleaner since it sticks and does a thorough job of disinfecting the walls and other surfaces. After they rinse the room, it sits vacant for a few weeks to break the disease cycle. At any time, he says they have two rooms full of calves, one being filled and one sitting vacant ready for the next group to come in.

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In addition, they wash the calves’ milk and starter pails with soap and water twice a week and return the same buckets to the same calf to reduce the spread of disease between calves.

calves in group pen

Calves receive 2 litres of pasteurized waste milk twice each day. On day two, they’re bucket trained and receive a small amount of 20 percent protein starter. Each calf also has access to an individual water bowl, where it has an unlimited supply of water starting at 2 weeks old.

Between 6 and 8 weeks old, depending on when the calf starts eating at least one kilogram of starter a day, Cathy switches them to a 16 percent protein BIR (built-in roughage) starter to help prepare them to digest forages. At 8 weeks, she weans the calves.

Cor says they decided to bucket train the calves and install automatic water bowls to try to train out the calves’ natural sucking reflex as early as possible. Between this and waiting until a month after weaning to introduce the calves to group housing, Cathy says she’s had very few problems with cross-sucking. She says the calves do establish a pecking order, but it’s over fairly quickly, and she’s never had any problems with it.

people in calf room

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Overall they’ve been pleased with the new barn. Cathy says it has accomplished their two main goals in building it, which were to create a better working environment for their employees and a better living environment for their calves. The calves are no longer subject to large variations in temperature and weather conditions. She says the drop in the calves’ stress levels was the biggest thing she noticed with the calves.

“No stress,” Cathy says. “We previously raised them in hutches, where it was cold, it was hot, it was wet. Now they have no stress.”

As a result, Cathy says they’ve only lost one out of the last 200 calves, giving them a 0.5 percent mortality rate. In addition, she says, since the animals have been growing better, they’ve started breeding heifers at 12 months instead of 13 months and average 22 months at first calving.  PD

See more of Poly-C Farms’ new calf barn in this slideshow.

Jenna Hurty-Person
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PHOTO 1: Co-owner Cathy Haagsma assigned a different coloured bucket to each room. This makes it easier for her and employees to know where each bucket belongs.

PHOTO 2: Calves stay in individual stalls until they are 3 months old.

PHOTO 3: At 3 months old, they pull out the removable panels separating the calves and make one group pen of 11 calves.

PHOTO 4: Each of the four rooms hold 22 calves and are set up to be all-in-all-out, which helps to reduce the spread of disease and keeps calves healthier. Photos by Jenna Hurty-Person.

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