Calf raising specialist
60 calves raised at one time but this operator is about to expand
MARVELVILLE — As a university student, Mark Nyentap visited an American farm that custom-raises tens of thousands of dairy calves at any given time.
“They had 30,000 hutches with calves, and they were doing a really good job,” recalls Nyentap, a 2019 graduate of the Dairy Sciences program at Iowa State University.
It planted the seed of an idea for a new niche — albeit on a smaller scale — when he returned home to his family’s dairy farm south of Ottawa, which he operates in partnership with his parents, Theo and Maria.
In 2021, he began taking in and raising the calves of one other nearby dairy producer. Since then, through word of mouth, Nyentap has added two more dairy-farmer clients and currently has 45 to 50 customer calves on the go in crisp white outdoor hutches at Marvellane Farms at any given time.
Manually caring for calves in hutches is still the gold standard, he points out, though there are drawbacks that dissuade farmers from doing so. “I think people like calf hutches, but I think they don’t like feeding calves outside in calf hutches,” he observes. “The elements are not always fun to work in, but I think anybody would argue it’s best for the calves.”
Today’s producers are actually more open to the idea of dropping the daily calf-raising chore from their farms entirely, he says, especially if they already employ robotic cow milkers. Raising calves “can become sort of an afterthought and not always the priority on a farm because they’re not what generates income,” he adds.
Two of his clients have cow-milking robots. One also used an automated calf feeder — a technology often paired with a robotic milking barn — but wasn’t satisfied. Nyentap says his service offers better performance than the alternatives. Daily weight gain is higher and mortality rate is lower. By bringing calves from multiple farms together at one spot, he’s also created modest, economy of scale investments — such as an automated bottle washer — to benefit the calf-raising effort for both his farm and his customers.
The calves arrive at Marvellane on the day they’re born after they’ve received their first feeding of colostrum. The animals are weighed upon arrival and again when they’re weaned at 2 ½ months of age. They are each fed three times per day, to a total of 10 ½ litres of pasteurized milk, as well as hay and pellets. They receive the four standard vaccines (plus four boosters). They are dehorned using a sedative and local anesthesia, followed by pain medication as the calves recover.
That third daily feeding, at 1 a.m., confers huge benefits, he says, and contributes greatly to the calves’ average 1.9 lb. of daily weight gain.
As a parlour operation that milks three times a day, the Nyentap farm smoothly incorporates the extra workload because it’s already geared up for traditional chores with a workforce of five long-term employees. An individual farmer looking after 10 calves likely spends at least an hour daily on that chore, including cleanup, he says. “But for us to feed 10 more, it doesn’t take an extra hour when you’re already caring for 50 or 60.”
He adds, “It’s all part of the routine. If one guy’s milking, the other guy’s scraping the barn and feeding calves … That’s made it practical for us. It doesn’t end up being extra chores, just part of the chores.”
This summer, he’s expanding the sideline to finish 50 client calves up to 6 months. At that convenient age, the transition stresses are mostly over, the calves’ rumens are developed and they are ready to consume on-farm forage. Two of his customers requested this longer period of care.
Sixteen group hutches — each accommodating three to four animals — are being installed on a large concrete pad south of the main barn, just beyond his collection of individual calf hutches. Each hutch also features custom aluminum gating of Nyentap’s own design and put together with the help of local welder Bert Doornwaard. The gates fold out of the way, allowing each unit to be moved onto a fresh pad before a new calf moves in.
The farm will have room for 170 animals up to 6 months of age after the expansion, with about 60 to 70 of those being customer calves. Another 60 or so spots will be occupied by the Nyentap family’s own animals. That leaves some extra capacity for future prospective clients, he says. “We plan to expand as demand for our service grows.”
Though he won’t disclose what he charges per day, Nyentap says that farmers are “money ahead” when all costs of raising calves yourself are considered, especially if that farmer was buying milk replacer. He offers a money-back guarantee on a calf’s survival if the standard blood-serum test shows the calf received at least the minimum necessary feeding of colostrum before arrival. It’s the farmer’s risk if the calf falls short on the test (and has a weaker immune system as a result.)
Customer Hugh Melenhorst is sold on the concept. Raising calves “really is very, very labour intensive to do it right,” says the Metcalfe dairy farmer who milks his cows in a rotary parlour and was Nyentap’s first customer. “We’ve been very happy with how it’s gone so far. And we actually have some of those calves milking now.”
The new enterprise, Melenhorst observed, fits with a trend of farmer specialization and contracting out the rest, although some attitudes have been slow to change. “Here in Canada, it’s kind of like the modern ‘Old McDonald’ farmer,” he quipped. “Everyone kind of thinks they have to do their own hay, feed their own calves, do all their own field work.”