Acidified Milk Feeding with Jenna Facer - Calf and Young Heifer Manager

Acidified Milk Feeding with Jenna Facer - Calf and Young Heifer Manager

We have a real treat in store for today’s blog! Jenna Facer, Calf and Young Heifer Manager, shares how she has developed an acidified milk feeding program on the farm she currently works on.

Jenna grew up next to grandparents who owned a 70 cow Holstein dairy. She was involved in 4-H and had the opportunity to milk for a neighboring 100 cow dairy down the road. 

When her grandparents sold their cows in 2003, she knew she still wanted to be involved in dairy production. So, she went to Virginia Tech and got a degree in Dairy Science.

After she graduated, Jenna strongly wanted to find an on-farm career, rather than a support role elsewhere in the industry. 7 years ago, she came across a great opportunity with the 1800 cow farm where she still works today. Her husband also works on the same farm, and they enjoy raising their 2 children in that atmosphere.


When Opportunity Knocks

When the farm brought Jenna on board their calf facility was a green sight. They had already decided they wanted to do group housing and they had already started to build the barns. They also had an idea that they wanted to do acidified milk but had no idea how they were going to get any of that going so they left piecing the program together up to her.

Before taking on this calf management job, Jenna hadn’t had a lot of experience raising calves, other than what she did on her grandparent’s farm growing up.  She was very interested in genetics and reproduction, but this opportunity was unique, and she couldn’t pass it up.

There are not many farms that say, “Here, we are bringing our calves home, design a program for us.”


Calf Program

Originally pens were designed for 1 week worth of calves to go in. At that time that was about 20 calves. We weren’t keeping any bull calves or beef breeds at that time.

I toured a couple different dairies and found out some of their different acidified milk feeding programs, and group protocols. I played around with some different acids, until I found one that worked best for our system. We made it as streamlined as possible, so it was as safe as possible, that was a huge priority.

The first 2-3 years were a learning curve especially when it came to calf health. While we were going through all the health issues, I really took on the mentality of preventative management. If there was anything I could do to prevent illness, then I did it. A good vaccine protocol, bedding, weaning protocols, etc. If one calf gets sick in group housing, by the time you catch it, the entire group is already exposed. Preventative management has become my motto and what I am constantly trying to improve.


Feeding Program

We do mob feeding, a 65-gallon tub with 10 nipples for 20 calves. We keep records of how much acidified milk is given to each pen and how much milk is left over. We shoot for 5 gallons left over because we don’t have an equal calf to nipple ratio. For several years I kept records on how much milk they would eat and now we have a graphical curve with amounts that we expect them to be eating at certain ages.

I worked hard the first few years doing all of this by myself. Because of the records that I kept, I was able to take the time off that I needed when I started having children. I have things set up so that when intakes as a group drop to a certain level, we know we will have issues and we can get them taken care of right away.

About 4 years ago they started putting embryos in our herd for elite cattle producers. I have raised some Wagyu calves for a well know North American Wagyu producer and an array of Holsteins and Jerseys for top breeders in the country. The farm also crosses Wagyu onto their cows, and we finish out those cattle in our feedlot. Cross calves are started out on milk in hutches and then move into group pens later. Whereas most of the purebred dairy calves go right into group pens 24-48 hours old. 


Preventative Management

We do not clean out the pens until the end of 12 weeks, so keeping up with bedding is very important, Ventilation is an ongoing battle, and we must play with it every season. We have huge temperature swings in this part of the world in the fall and swing. We do have automatic curtains that help a lot, but we still must adjust them every season. Installing ventilation tubes has been a game changer. We also utilize vaccines and optimize use of those to fit the bugs we deal with.

Making sure calves eat enough from day 1 is very important. Before going into the group pens at 24 hours old calves get at least 2 feedings of colostrum. After entering the group pen, calves get at least 2 days’ worth of hand feeding from bottles before we expect them to get all their calories from the mob feeder. If they are for some reason not getting to the mob feeder, we will continue individual feedings.

The calf manager is responsible for visually tracking calves for 2 weeks to make sure each calf is getting to the feeding box at least 3 times per day. Preferably it is 5-6 times per day they are coming to eat, but we feel comfortable that they are eating enough if we visually see them eat at least 3 times per day.

Our weaning protocol was another thing we had to get figured out, so we weren’t having huge transition issues.  Our protocol is long. The calves peak eating a little over 3 gallons per calf per day. We start weaning at 6 weeks old, and they are done at about 9 weeks. 

Calves are weaned slowly over the 2-week transition. Milk solids are dropped, and more water added several times over those 2 weeks. We do that because we have less nipples than calves and need to make sure that everyone gets a chance to drink. Once the mix is all water, we just slowly do less water each day.

We found if we slowly diluted the milk, the calves didn’t notice that they were missing calories and grain intake didn’t increase like it should. We started making bigger drops in solids to drive the grain intake. The calves stay in the same pens in the calf barn for up to 11-12 weeks depending on how many calves we have at a time.  


What do you feel is the most important aspect of calf rearing?

Calf health, getting calves to be as healthy as possible is the most important. In my opinion it all comes back to that. Every time they get sick their future potential is decreased.


What are your biggest health challenges and how do you address them?

In group housing, if one gets sick, they are pretty much all exposed. That’s why we focus very much on preventative management and quick treatment. I have worked very closely with our veterinarian to develop protocols so that when we have a sick calf, we are able to treat it on site right away. Both I and the other calf manager are trained to do IV’s and subcutaneous fluids if needed.  

We have gotten very good at managing pneumonia, but we do struggle with Crypto. Cryptosporidium is very hard to get rid of once it is in your barns. We use chlorine dioxide at a low rate in all the water, and we have strict cleaning protocols.


What are your calf growth goals?

We expect calves to be 250 lbs. by weaning, our stretch goal is 300 lbs. We can easily hit 250, we were having a hard time getting above that without keeping calves on milk longer. So, we came up with a goal to have less outliers. We had been seeing 1-2 calves that were smaller, our goal was to find out where those were coming from and how to deal with them.

With calves, you are always dealing with new animals, but it always seems like it is the same problems you deal with. Don’t limit yourself with “this is how we always do it”.

Rather than holding the smaller calves back at weaning like we used to, we now try to sort out our smaller calves from the beginning and house them in a pen together. Our IVF calves also tend to get sick more easily.  We have a little different protocol for them, including tri-shield paste at birth, and free-range electrolytes.

When we offer electrolytes, we just have a 55-gallon tub cut in half that we fill with electrolyte solution right next to their water trough. It is silly how simple it is and how big of a difference it has made.  I will have a pen that is just not right and after putting in the tub of electrolytes it seems like the next day they are back to normal. Sometimes I think we overcomplicate things.


Thank you, Jenna, for sharing all about your acidified milk feeding program!  If you would like to hear more about calf raising from Jenna, you can follow her over on Instagram!  She is also currently writing an acidified milk feeding manual and plans to release it near the end of the year!  Stay tuned for updates and an offical release date!


Written by: Mariah Gull, M.S.

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