When the Henschel family of Manawa, Wisconsin, built a freestall barn for robots last year, they could not stand the thought of the former tiestall barn sitting empty. After a thorough gutting and renovation, the barn has a renewed purpose for calves, dry cows and maternity.

Coffeen peggy
Coffeen was a former editor and podcast host with Progressive Dairy. 

Following a barn fire in 2002, Jeff and Diana Henschel and their son Christopher (Bucky) Henschel built a new tiestall barn for 114 cows. However, when planning for the future, the opportunity to embrace technology and grow the herd size while reducing milking labor appealed to the family.

As the Henschels discussed how to incorporate robotic milking, they decided a new build was a better option than a retrofit for the cows. The vision began to come together for using the structurally sound and well-maintained tiestall barn as calf and dry cow housing for the growing herd.

Cows moved into the robot barn in December 2016 and, shortly after that, work began on gutting the tiestall barn to prepare it for its new purpose. They took out the pipeline, removed the stalls and filled in the gutters. With plans to reach 400 milking cows, the Henschels estimated 68 calf stalls would meet their replacement needs.

Gutted the tiestall barn and filled it with individual calf pens

This would also allow space for a bedded pack with outdoor access for dry cows, along with six maternity pens, all within the same building. “Now everybody can be under one roof,” Jeff says.


Retrofitting for calves

The Henschels created a calf pen area with efficiency in mind. A row of individual pens lines each side of the center alley, in the same area that was once tiestalls. This makes it easy for Diana, the main calf caretaker, to deliver liquids with a drive-by milk and water dispenser. They also raised the former feed alley, located between the back of the pens and the barn walls, and built a small concrete ramp on which to push a bedding cart.

Gates offer a unique and handy design

This allows them to bed the pens from behind, keeping straw out of the feed and water buckets attached to the front panels. Employee comfort is a further benefit of the raised alley, as it reduces the height to which someone must lift a fork or bucket in order to bed the pens. The base underneath the pens is concrete, set at a slight slope for drainage.

Continuing to provide astute and individualized calf care was also a high priority for Diana as she transitioned from raising her “babies” in outdoor hutches to indoor pens. She is able to maintain that with a design featuring front access to each pen and removable panels that allow for grouping calves in pairs in preparation for transitioning to larger groups after weaning.

“They seem to do better with a buddy,” she says. “This will help them adjust better from the single pen to the group.”

The pen area is set up to be easily cleaned. The gates, which hold two individual pens each, swing open to allow for the skid steer to scoop soiled bedding. Panels are removed and pressure washed between calves. The Henschels are experimenting with a foaming disinfectant for the facilities in order to keep moisture levels in the barn as low as possible.

Diana has embraced these changes, touting convenience as one of the major benefits of the new calf-raising method. “I can feed calves in three-quarters of the time it took before,” she says. And as far as personalized care, “You can see the calves much better in the pens than in the hutch,” she adds.

Calves are separated by a removable panel until just propr to weaning

The Henschels kept some fixtures of the barn in place while adapting others to meet new needs. The ventilation system uses a combination of existing fans with the addition of a supplemental positive-pressure fan and tube system to deliver fresh air directly into the calf pens. They also upgraded to LED lights throughout the barn. The former utility room is being converted to hold a warming pen for newborns, and the milk house is now used for washing bottles.

The ‘maternity ward’

Jeff is equally enthusiastic about the dry cow and calving areas located opposite of the calf-raising area of the barn. “I have my own little maternity ward,” he says.

Maternity pen

Each pen accommodates a portable milking unit, waterer and headlock. The swinging gate design makes it possible for one person to move a cow and guide it into the headlock. Cows are milked in the pen once after calving and then walked a short distance outside to the robot barn for subsequent milkings.

On the other side of the six maternity pens, dry cows relax and enjoy the comforts of a large bedded pack area. While the pen has headlocks and a feeding area inside, the Henschels also can take advantage of the fenceline feeding area outside of the barn, weather permitting.

“Pre-fresh cows come in here if it’s really hot or really cold,” Jeff says.

Another benefit for the Henschels of turning the former stall barn into a maternity and calf facility is: The office and employee break room are also located in this barn. This means when employees come to work, they can easily walk by and check cows for calving.

So far, the Henschels have been happy with their choice of re-inventing the functions of their former tiestall barn, and they look forward to calving in cows and raising the next generation of their dairy herd in an environment where they are set to thrive.  end mark

PHOTO 1: After building a new milking facility for six robots, the Henschel family found a new life for their former tiestall barn. From left to right, Christopher “Bucky” Henschel and Diana and Jeff Henschel.

PHOTO 2: The Henschels gutted the tiestall barn and filled in the gutter to create a surface for individual calf pens. 

PHOTO 3: The gates at the front of the pen offer a unique and handy design. Each gate has two individual fronts with a head hole and buckets, along with a slot for a removable separation panel. The Henschels can swing open the large gate for cleaning, while they also have the option to enter an individual pen through the front to provide necessary calf care.

PHOTO 4: Calves are separated by a removable panel until just prior to weaning; the panel is removed to house the calves in pairs. Separate head holes in the front panels help keep grain and water in their respective buckets.

PHOTO 5: Each of the six maternity pens accommodates a portable milking unit, waterer and headlock, as well as a swinging gate so one person can move the cow into the headlock without assistance. Photos by Peggy Coffeen.

Peggy Coffeen