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An article from Country Today - Updated: 12/3/2008 9:34:01 AM

WAUNAKEE - Will and Jim Hensen have been successful at getting the most out of their milking herd but they have been looking for a way to give their calves a head start.

The Hensens built a power-ventilated 80-stall calf barn they believe will keep their calves healthy and growing fast.
"After last year's cold winter, we were looking for something to keep the calves comfortable and make it more pleasant to take care of them," Will said. "Newborn calves have a tough time (in an open-air structure) when it's 20 below zero."
The Hensens did their homework on several calf facilities before contracting with Larry Kubly and Blue Diamond Marketing in Strawberry Point, Iowa, to build their new setup. Construction began in July and calves were scheduled to be moved into the facilities this week.

"It's the calf barn of all calf barns," Mr. Kubly said about the Hensens' new 40-by-112-foot building. "This is the first of its kind in the United States. There isn't anything like this that we know of."

The building's five rooms each hold 16 calves. There are flush pits 16 inches deep under each row of calves, with hot-water-heated steel grates over the top of the pits to heat to 70 degrees the area where the calves sleep. The grates are self-cleaning and eliminate the need for bedding.

All five rooms are power ventilated to circulate air out of the attic in the summer. Mr. Kubly said air will be exchanged in the room every 45 seconds.

Passive solar panels will preheat the incoming winter air. An outdoor wood stove - with an LP-gas backup system - will provide heat for the hot-water radiators and in-floor heating system. The barn will be heated to between 40 and 50 degrees in the winter.

Mr. Kubly said winter is the most difficult time of year to keep livestock facilities clean, but the calf barn's design allows the building's equipment to be cleaned without removal or hauling to another site. He said there's nothing to take apart and put back together, and it can all be sprayed off with water.

Will said they had been considering new calf facilities for four or five years but became serious about building a new system earlier this year.

"We looked at smaller buildings, but we wanted bigger pens for the calves," Jim said.

They said the facility will be a significant upgrade from their old calf barn. The brothers joked that feeding the calves will evolve from a winter job that no one wanted to do to one that everyone will be volunteering for.

The ventilation system won't cool the air in the building in the summer but will lower the humidity by 15 to 18 percent and keep the air moving above the calves, Mr. Kubly said.

Mr. Kubly said more dairy farmers are beginning to realize the importance of getting calves off to a good start.
"The calf is worth a lot of money today," he said. "Studies have shown that the optimum temperature for calves is 50 degrees.

Below that, they need more high-priced milk replacer to keep their bodies warm. Keeping water in front of them all the time helps them build their immune system and fight off pneumonia and other bugs.

"Most calves genetically can put on 2 pounds a day. If they can maintain that growth, in eight weeks they look like they're 12-week-old calves."

Mr. Kubly said many university experts argue that calves should be kept in the open air, but he disagrees.

"They say it's better if calves are kept cold - I'm saying that's not true," he said. "I've built power-ventilated barns and the results are phenomenal."

Mr. Kubly said the Hensens' calf facility cost more than the $1,500 to $2,000 per calf that many farmers spend, but he said there are tradeoffs.

"Those other facilities take more management and labor to keep clean," Mr. Kubly said. "And there are certainly advantages to not having to spend money on bedding and having healthier calves."

Mr. Kubly said the building design and the fact that a bedded pack isn't used in the pens help reduce the structure size by as much as 50 percent. The facility allows 12 square feet per calf instead of the traditional 25 to 32 square feet required when using a bedded pack.

The Hensens had Dane County's top herd on Dairy Herd Improvement records as of Sept. 30, based on cheese yield and butterfat. The rolling herd average on their 350 cows is more than 32,000 pounds per cow.

Will's son Kyle and Jim's son Jason are full-time employees in the business that has been in the family since 1867. Kyle and

Jason represent the fifth generation of Hensens in the operation.

"We're in it for the boys - if they want to farm we're behind them 100 percent," Jim said.

The Hensens operate about 180 acres of cropland near Waunakee and rent another 270 acres near Dodgeville in Iowa County, about 60 miles away.

Will said it isn't likely they'll be expanding cow numbers at the Waunakee location, with a Middleton housing development about a half-mile away and Waunakee encroaching from the north.

Jim Massey can be reached at jimmassey@mhtc.net.

607 N. Franklin St.   •   Edgewood, Iowa 52042
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