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Group-feeding system grows healthier cattle at Copenhagen farm

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COPENHAGEN — Sara M. Murray, calf manager at the Murray family dairy farm, used to spend about three hours a day feeding calves individually, lugging 5-gallon pails of milk around to do so.

But thanks to a group-feeding system installed 13 months ago that allows calves to consume milk on their own 24 hours a day, her schedule for managing the cows is a lot more flexible, with a lot less heavy lifting involved. And because the calves are eating more than they ever have, the operation is fostering the growth of healthy, stronger cattle that eventually will produce more milk as adults.

Called Murcrest Farm, the family’s large-scale dairy operation on Route 12 has thrived using the group-feeding systems installed at its 5,000-square-foot calf barn. The barn is equipped with four group-feeding stations, which each serve two pens with eight calves.

Separated by aluminum gates, the pens are equipped with large feeding bins made from industrial-style garden sheds with swinging lids that contain 45-gallon bins replete with milk. Electrical space heaters inside the bins ensure the milk remains at a steady temperature of 85 degrees. The temperature is slightly cooler than the 100-degree milk calves are used to drinking straight from the udder so that they don’t overeat, and the milk is treated with an additive to stay at a pH level of 4.2 to prevent the growth of bacteria.

Four quarter-inch rubber tubes branch from the bucket to connect with artificial nipples accessible to the calves outside the bin, made by drilling 4-inch holes with PVC end caps. The hoses are connected with valves on the end so the milk flows freely when calves feed.

While demonstrating how the systems work Wednesday at the calf barn with her husband, Mark G. — who is herd manager at the 2,200-acre farm — Mrs. Murray explained that the makeshift feeding station operates effectively like a mother cow. The cost to purchase the equipment for a station is about $500 to $600.

“It’s basically a trade-off, because it’s like the mom is there for the calves,” she said, adding that the eight groups in the pens range from one day to eight weeks in age. “We’re trying to mimic the mom as closely as we can.”

Because the calves are allowed to snack on the milk all day long, Mrs. Murray said, they’re growing a lot faster and staying much healthier than they were under the old system, when they were fed individually twice a day. While about 80 percent of calves used to receive treatment to address eating concerns, that figure has dropped to about 15 percent among the 400 calves using the group system over the past year.

With a tape measuring the girth of their bodies, calves are weighed every day to get a benchmark on how fast they’re growing. After about eight weeks in the system, the calves are removed from the pens and stationed with the other cattle in a barn.

“Since we started this system we’ve had a much higher rate of gain,” he said. “Calves used to gain a pound or pound and a half, but now they’re gaining two or more consistently every day.”

Mrs. Murray said the feeding systems have made her job a lot easier, too. Rather than sticking to a strict daily feeding schedule, she’s able to monitor the calves throughout the day to ensure they’re healthy.

“I get to know the animals better because I spend more time working with them,” she said, adding she was able to manage the system when she was pregnant last summer. “Plus, this gets the cattle to socialize more together, which is what they like to do as herd animals.”

Calves are separated in different bins based on their age, she said; the groups are all born the same week. Separating them ensures that older calves don’t prevent younger ones from eating.

One shortcoming of using the group-feeding system is a higher risk of respiratory diseases caused by housing the calves together, Mrs. Murray said. That’s why the barn is ventilated by three large tubes lining the top of its ceiling that send a constant flow of outdoor air.

But even with the risks, today’s farmers are increasingly using group systems to grow healthier cattle, Mrs. Murray said.

“Farmers were doing this back in the ’80s, but it’s now been perfected,” she said. “And farmers are finding that when cows are healthier as babies, they become healthier adults that produce more milk.”

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