Excitement is in the air at Valley Line Dairy as the next generation of both farmers and heifers make their mark. Young farmers Troy and Patty Sellen are in the beginning stages of a transfer of ownership, and the first group of heifers raised under Patty’s strict calf protocols are coming into the parlor.
“We are just getting to the point where we can really see the results of all the investments that we have made since I came home from college. Now, it’s all starting to blossom,” says Troy, a 2006 UW-River Falls graduate. He joined his parents Jeff and Brenda Sellen, who at the time milked 120 cows and raised dairy steers near Oconto Falls.
Strategic management decisions made during the past seven years have narrowed the Sellens’ focus of attention and investments to the cows and young stock. Eliminating the steer sector of their business made room to grow the herd and maximize efficiency in the parlor. In 2009, a transition facility and dry cow barn was added, bringing the herd up to its present size of around 300 cows. They also gave up some tractor time in favor of hiring custom operators for chopping and manure hauling.
“We had an aging line of equipment at the time, and when we were deciding where to spend money, we decided to invest it in the herd … herd health and tools for the barn rather than maintaining the equipment,” Troy adds. “That turned out really well for us.”
Of all the efficiencies and improvements at Valley Line Dairy in recent years, perhaps the best addition has been Troy’s wife Patty. Also a UW-River Falls graduate, she worked as a Land O’Lakes feed representative for a local cooperative and fed calves at the dairy before joining the farm full-time last summer.
With a passion for calves and a results-driven management style, Patty has brought consistency to the young stock program. As the first heifer calves she raised are starting to come into the milking string, she is at the cusp of seeing her hard work pay off.
“My ‘girls’ are just starting to freshen,” she says.
Troy acknowledges her role in taking newborn calf protocols to the next level.
“We had a lot of holes,” he says, “but Patty rewrote the program.”
Patty’s calf care protocols
“I am pretty picky when it comes to my girls,” Patty admits.
Her pickiness is paying off. She loses very few calves, and rarely gives a shot.
Setting a calf up for success starts at birth. When a cow is near calving, she is sorted to the clean environment of the calving pen. Once born, the calf is immediately removed from the cow and placed in an individual stall in a warming room. The navel is dipped, and the calf is vaccinated with Calf Guard. The newborn then receives one gallon of high quality colostrum, warmed to 102 degrees, along with First Defense, Bovine Ecolizer and Inforce 3.
In order to provide the best immune boost, colostrum is collected only from cows that pass Patty’s background check. This means that all of the vaccinations are up to date, and she goes as far as keeping out colostrum from cows carrying twins or showing signs of lameness.
Patty’s trusted tool on the dairy is her hand-held digital Brix refractometer, which she uses to monitor colostrum quality and passive transfer. This handy device tells her if the colostrum meets her immunoglobulin (IgG) standard for heifer calves of 22 percent or better. Her minimum quality for bull calves is 21 percent IgG. She also pulls blood samples on calves that are a few days old and uses her refractometer to monitor passive transfer levels. Her benchmark is 5.4 on the Brix scale.
All of these steps are documented along the way. Patty has set the farm’s Dairy Comp record keeping system to prompt data entry including where the calf was born, which dam supplied the colostrum, how quickly the calf received colostrum, colostrum IgG levels and passive transfer results. She has been able to dig into this data to draw conclusions and denote trends, and then use this information for decision-making and employee management.
Among trends she has observed, her records of the timing of when colostrum was fed and level of passive transfer coincide with overall calf health. While the goal is for calves to receive colostrum within the first hour of life, she acknowledges that is “not always humanly possible.”
Calves that receive colostrum within the first four hours seem to do well, but six hours and beyond is where she notices the difference. These calves tend to be what Patty calls her “boarder-line poor doers” – calves that are more prone to scours and sickness within the critical first week of life.
The blood test for passive transfer also tells a story.
“Whenever I find a calf that fails, there is definitely a direct relationship that she is not going to be as tall and not going to be able to handle the feeding program as well,” she adds.
Likewise, Patty also can pull up records to show that calves born in the designated calving area tend to be healthier than those born to cows that were not sorted before calving. This information helps instill the importance of protocols with employees.
“They don’t want to see a calf do poorly because of something they failed to do,” Patty says.
These detailed records are a helpful tool in making culling decisions, as the farm regularly sells excess heifers for dairy replacements.
While getting the calves off to a good start is important, so is providing them with the environment and nutrition that they need to grow efficiently. Patty uses her refractometer to monitor pasteurized milk solids. She also tracks calf growth and performance with annual taping and weighing.
Always striving for better calves, Patty enjoys setting up her own research trials and test groups. She has experimented with different methods of weaning, settling on a gradual, two-week process instead of abrupt weaning. Most recently, adding a third feeding of milk to the schedule has yielded undisputable results: healthier, bigger calves. Calves receive three quarts of pasteurized milk, three times each day; however, consistency and labor continue to be a challenge. For this reason, they are in the exploratory stages of selecting an automated calf feeder. For a picky calf raiser like Patty, choosing an auto feeder is no simple task. She and Troy have been evaluating brands, and their decision will probably come down to the availability of service in their area and the machine’s ability to handle whole milk.
They believe auto feeders have to potential to provide better labor efficiency and quality of life, and, as Patty points out, the consistency and socialization necessary for calves to thrive.
“Growthier, taller heifers. That is my main focus,” she states. “I really want these calves to excel so they can produce milk in the herd.”
Looking toward the future
Two years into a 20-year farm succession plan, the couple is thankful for their working relationship with Troy’s parents.
“Both of his parents have been very supportive, and they offer great guidance and wisdom,” says Patty. “But, they also respect and allow us to venture out and bring back ideas to improve productivity and efficiency. We are very lucky.”
The results of their ideas and improvements are coming to life.
“Production has really taken a hike in the last year. We have gone from buying cattle to maintain herd size to having excess. We have better quality of animals here, and better feed is paying off,” says Troy. “It’s all kind of fun right now.”
Patty, too, is enjoying watching the first of the calves that she raised come into the parlor.
“It’s exciting to see the next group come into the herd … to walk through the barn and see the faces of heifers that I have known since they were born,” she says. “Our goal is to improve on quality and keep working at it.”