The room looked like church on Christmas with extra chairs set up in the aisles and a group congregated outside the door in hopes of catching the presentation. The topic was “Housing and Management Practices Fit for a Healthy Calf.” This well-attended session was one of four workshops to kick-off the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) Business Conference March 13-14 in Madison, Wisconsin.

Lee karen
Managing Editor / Progressive Dairy

Led by Dr. Rebecca Brotzman from the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Veterinary Medicine , a three-producer panel shared key calf housing components – calf pen design, air quality, facility size and management techniques – specific to their operations.

Peggy Rau
Dic-Wisco Farms

Peggy Rau and her husband, Richard, own and operate Dic-Wisco Farms, along with sons Zayne and Zak, in Dorchester, Wisconsin. The dairy consists of 1,300 milk cows, 1,400 head of youngstock and some Black Angus.

Last year, the dairy built two new calf barns to implement a group feeding system. Fifty outdoor hutches still remain where calves are kept from birth until 5 to 7 days old, when they are moved into the new barns.

The barns have an overshot center ridge and top and bottom curtain sidewalls to open and close. They also have a positive pressure tube that runs the length of the barn. “The curtain management and center ridge are as big or bigger for management than the tube,” Rau said.


Pens are bedded first with shavings and then straw. Between each group of calves, the bedding pack is completely removed and the entire pen, including gates, is washed down. The concrete of each pen is slanted towards a drain.

Ten years ago, the Raus switched from milk replacer to whole milk. “It was like flipping a switch,” Rau said, noting they went from sick and struggling calves to a healthier herd.

Milk is brought from the dairy and placed in a milkhouse tank at the calf barn. One barn uses a heat pasteurizer while the other relies on UV pasteurization. Rau noted the heat pasteurizer does use more energy and time to get the job done.

The automated feeders in each barn have an alarm screen to notify the feeder of any unusual feeding patterns. “It’s a great tool but no substitute to a critical eye,” Rau said. “There are calves that eat everything and are still sick.”

In the group system, Rau said she sees earlier weaning, higher starter consumption and a less stressful environment. She has placed a ball in the pen and hung a cow brush to give the calves something to play with in order to keep them from suckling on each other.

Tim Keller
Kellercrest Registered Holsteins, Inc.

Tim Keller of Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, farms with his wife, Sandy, and his brother, Mark, in this 200-cow dairy operation.

Calves at Kellercrest are raised to join the milking herd, as well as for merchandising. “We don’t sacrifice anything on our calves,” Keller said.

This begins at calving. The dairy has separate maternity pens for mature cows and heifers. At birth, 7 percent iodine is applied to the calf’s navel, a rotavirus and coronavirus vaccine is given for scours and a clostridium perfringens vaccine for clostridia diseases.

The calves are then transported to the farm’s two-year-old calf barn. This new facility houses 52 calves in individual pens and a 10-foot by 15-foot milk house in the center of the barn.

There are temperature-controlled curtains on the sidewalls and positive pressure ventilation tubes inside. A 16-foot to 18-foot opening between the rows of pens creates a chimney effect with the vented ridge.

The individual pens are four feet by seven feet with eight-foot panels separating each one. The extra foot on the front end of the panel keeps the calves from nose-to-nose contact.

The backside of the pen is a 2-foot concrete wall with wire fencing above. This short wall is set 2 feet from the outer wall of the barn to reduce back draft in the pens.

A drain tile is located in the center of each pen with the concrete pitched towards the drain. Pens are bedded with cornstalks underneath and good wheat straw on top.

One week before transitioning to the heifer barn, panels are removed between the pens and three calves are able to socialize with one another.

Click here or on the image at left to take a virtual tour with Sandy Keller of Kellercrest Registered Holsteins, Inc.

She will show you the design highlights of the farm's two-year-old calf barn.

To see more virtual tours of calf barns and other dairy facilities, as well as to find help in planning your facility design, click here to log on to The Dairyland Initiative.

Cathy Speirs
Shiloh Dairy LLC
Cathy Speirs and her husband Gordon farm in Brillion, Wisconsin. Shiloh Dairy LLC has 1,450 milking cows. Their son Travis serves as herd manager and son Tyler is the dairy’s mechanic/operations manager.

“What you put into calves as babies, that’s what you get out in the milking herd,” Speirs said. “Our goal is to maximize the genetic potential of each of our calves so that we get out more than we put in.”

The dairy has five calving pens that are walked every half-hour to an hour looking for signs of calving.

Once the calf is born, the cow is milked in the calving pen and given a fresh supply of warm water to drink. The calf is moved to a nearby plastic hutch where it is vigorously towel-dried, and the navel is dipped with 7 percent iodine. The calf is then fed 6 pints of colostrum by bottle within a half-hour of birth.

Any remaining colostrum is labeled and frozen. The frozen colostrum bank is constantly rotated so the oldest colostrum is fed first.

The dairy tests for Johne’s Disease, and positive cows are marked with an orange ear tag. Colostrum from those cows is not fed to heifer calves and selected from the bank instead.

Six hours later the newborn calf is offered another 6 pints of colostrum.

In this time, the calving manager has filled out a one-page form detailing the labor, delivery and post-natal care. “This way I don’t have to approach the manager to ask about each cow and calf,” Speirs said.

From the maternity ward, calves find a home in one of 200 outdoor hutches. In the winter, calves are given a blanket and both the inside and outside of the hutch is bedded.

While the hutches are placed on a large concrete pad, there is a gravel opening under each hutch to allow for drainage.

Pasteurized waste milk is delivered to the calves via a timed electric pump. “The calves get exactly 7 pints, every feeding, every day, with no variation,” Speirs said. The pump wand is also dipped in a pail of disinfectant between calves.

At least five minutes after drinking their milk, the calves are fed water. All water refusals are collected in a wheelbarrow and disposed of away from the hutches.

The calf feeding mobile is stocked with a toolkit for triage. There are also bottles of electrolytes for scouring calves and separate buckets to disinfect the thermometer and balling gun.

A notebook and pen are used to record all events. This information is entered daily into the computer. Calfside, colored clothespins are placed on the fence of the hutch to signify extra treatment.

After calves are weaned, four to five are grouped together outside for one week. “This takes away the social stressor before they are moved inside,” Speirs said.

The 400-animal transition barn is ventilated with fans and a ventilation tube. From weaning, the calves are grouped eight per pen and then moved to groups of 16. These pens are bedded with straw. From here they enter sand-bedded freestalls in groups of 48. PD

Calf housing varies from dairy to dairy. Wisconsin producers, left to right, Peggy Rau, Sandy and Tim Keller, and Cathy Speirs shared the details of their calf systems in a panel moderated by Dr. Rebecca Brotzman (far right). Photo by Karen Lee.


Karen Lee
Progressive Dairyman