KEWAUNEE — J Hall describes Hall’s Calf Ranch as “a really big daycare.”
And judging by the minimum 5,000 gallons of milk it requires each day, that comparison is an understatement.
“We bring other people’s animals here and raise them for anywhere from 10 weeks to 5½ or 6 months of age, which is when most of them get brought back to their farms,” said Hall, who owns the business with his wife, Marlene. “But while they’re here, we treat them just like they’re our own.”
Hall’s Calf Ranch, located about six miles west of Kewaunee in rural Kewaunee County, raises about 8,500 calves for 30 farms, all within a 70-mile radius of the 55-acre facility. Those farms run the gamut from 40 cows to 7,200 cows.
Each day, anywhere from 75 to 150 new calves (90 percent Holsteins) arrive at Hall’s Calf Ranch. They get weighed, receive vaccinations and are immediately housed for two to three days in the “warm barn,” which features a heated floor.
From there, calves are fitted with cold-weather jackets and transferred for eight to nine weeks to a hutch, of which there are 5,200 on the property. After that, they head to a pen with about 10 other calves before shifting to group barns until the time nears for them to return to their original farms.
Calves receive milk twice daily for about the first six weeks, at which time they go down to once daily. After about seven weeks, they come off the milk, as long as they’re eating 3 pounds of grain daily to maintain body weight. By the time a calf leaves its hutch, it is consuming 6 to 8 pounds of grain daily.
In all, Hall’s Calf Ranch requires a daily minimum of 5,000 gallons of milk and 12,000 pounds of grain. A pasteurizing building is on-site to help with that process.
For each calf, farms pay $3.75 daily when it’s in a hutch and $2.75 when it’s in a barn. That includes all related expenses.
Hall’s Calf Ranch has grown by leaps and bounds since J and Marlene purchased it in 1995. Shortly before that, J was working for a dairy whose farm owner started selling his calves.
“I said, ‘Why are you selling your calves? Why don’t we raise them ourselves?’ ” Hall recalled. “He said he couldn’t keep them alive. So I said, ‘Well, I can keep them alive. I have no problem with that.’ He said, ‘OK, take them home and do it.’ And that’s how it started.
“When we got going, there was a house and a garage up front, and we put 13 hutches in the backyard and started raising baby calves. Each year, we gradually grew — another 100 calves, then another 100 calves. About five years ago, we took a big jump, and now we’re permitting for almost 10,000 head. So we’ve kept growing.”
Helping keep the operation running day and night are 62 full-time and 10 part-time employees, who feed the calves, refresh the bedding and clean the pails (500 to 1,000 are washed each day), among a variety of other tasks.
They also assist with testing calves. Using a digital refractometer, blood is analyzed to show serum proteins.
“If they have a certain level of protein, that means a calf was fed properly at the dairy and got enough good colostrum and at the right time,” Hall said. “We test every calf that way that we bring in. And the farmers love it, because at the same time, it tests their employees and makes sure they’re doing things the right way.”
Blood samples also undergo testing for BVD-PI (bovine viral diarrhea-persistent infection).
“That calf becomes a PI calf when it is in the cow,” Hall said. “She’s usually three to four months pregnant and the cow is subjected to BVD and then that calf will always have BVD. But we find very few calves on our facility that are BVD-PI.”
More than 30,000 calves come through Hall’s Calf Ranch each year, and Hall said only about six to eight end up having BVD-PI.
“So it’s a very small percentage,” he said. “But if you don’t catch that animal, it’ll spread that disease. And that’s why we test for it.”
Overall, about 30 percent of the calves will be administered antibiotics at some point while they’re at the facility.
Hall said the ranch is “pretty much maxed out” in terms of calf capacity, but he’s well aware of the industry’s potential economic impact on his business.
“The economy affects everyone,” he said. “It’s getting to be where the milk price ... we’re connected to it. If farmers don’t get paid what they need, they can’t make their payments ... or they raise fewer calves. And those things impact us, too.”
The Halls face other challenges, too.
“My biggest challenge is probably, like with a lot of people in the ag business, managing a large number of employees and training people to do what I do,” Hall said. “I could feed calves all day long, but training people to feed a calf the way I feed a calf, sometimes it’s easier or harder than other times.
“And the other thing would be making sure we’re doing what’s right for the environment and keeping the environment clean and controlling our runoff and our water. It’s a large cost, but it has to be done and we understand that and know how important it is.
“We have a responsibility to take care of the calves here for the farmers and also to take care of our environment as best we can.”