A passion for raising weanlings

Calves are gambolling through a bright and airy barn, jumping here and there full of boisterous energy. “That’s what they’re doing almost every day between 4 and 5 pm; they start to run and then just race up and down the full length of the barn for a few minutes,” says manager Dorthe Harting with sparkling eyes. “We’ve even asked our vet whether this was normal. He said, it’s perfectly fine as long as it’s fine with us. Young animals need to move, and it’s a sign that they are doing really well.” There’s nothing surprising about the calves being so lively – after all Dorthe Harting and her family are putting their hearts and souls into raising their weanlings.

Grow or give way

The Kühling family’s farm is in Lüsche, in the district of Vechta in Lower Saxony. They have about 1,790 weanlings at three locations near their home farm, which is very close to the Lüsche Horse Clinic. The family’s business also includes 35 hectares of arable fields (maize and barley) and 30 hectares of grassland. Originally, the Kühlings started out with a small farm with just a few pigs, cows and chickens, like they used to exist everywhere. “My father took over the farm after the war. About 40 years ago, I joined his business and introduced the first weanlings to the farm,” remembers Walter Kühling. “We were the first in our town to start raising weanlings, and we soon realised that we loved working with calves. That’s why we converted all of our animal housing to raising weanlings, creating the first 350 places at our home farm.” Originally Dorthe Harting, Walter’s daughter, wanted to work with horses and completed an equestrian apprenticeship, partly inspired by the family’s close location to the horse clinic. But then her love for the calves kicked in. “I got my qualifications as a master practitioner in agriculture and then started to work full-time in our business. Around the same time, one of our neighbouring farmers told us that they were going to build a bull fattening house. My father immediately offered that we could supply them with weanlings, and this is how we’ve built an excellent collaboration since 2016. This security of planning allowed us to build another barn with 840 places in 2020. That was in addition to one external barn with 420 places we had already built in 2010. We probably wouldn’t have taken this step so confidently if we hadn’t had a guaranteed buyer,” Dorthe Harting says. Both the Kühling farm and the bull fattening business enjoy their close, trusting relationship very much. “The fattening business gets our young animals at a weight of 200 to 230 kg. We get feedback on how the bulls are doing and what we could do better in raising them. And it’s also good for the fattening business if they know how their animals were kept before. After all, we’re establishing the basis for their finishing,” explains Dorthe Harting.

New animal housing with forced ventilation

The recently completed animal housing is something very special. Initially, the plan had been to build high-efficiency, low-cost housing, i.e. a large group under a single roof, but at a training event the Kühling family happened to meet a Bavarian farmer who also raised weanlings, and he invited them to have a look at his animal housing. This consisted of small units and in particular featured forced ventilation. “The weanlings looked so good, we were totally impressed. Having seen that, we fundamentally revised our construction plans. We completely withdrew the building application we had already submitted and redesigned the entire ventilation system. Many just laughed about us, and the design was a lot more expensive, but it was simply the right thing to do. Now that we’ve had a very cold winter, which was very quickly followed by quite warm temperatures, we hardly noticed these temperature differences in our animal housing. The air enters at the front of the central corridor, where it just sits for a while in a dry environment. This is where it is warmed to get rid of some of its humidity, because the animals don’t like humid air. From there, a fan conveys the air to the barn in a controlled manner. This ensures that we have the same high air quality everywhere,” reports Dorthe Harting full of satisfaction. For hot summer days, the design even features spray cooling. Her father adds that “we built against the advice we received, which was predictably to follow an efficient, cost-effective design, but that comes at the expense of many factors, above all ventilation, and therefore affects animal health. If I have a better building, I ultimately save money, because my animals are in better health. There’s an old saying that ‘it’s light and air that fatten your cattle,’ says Walter Kühling. The animal housing has a ceiling height of 7 m and provides 18 m³ of air space per weanling.

Automated feeders

One important part of the new building was automation. Given that the family members share the work, they all wanted to reduce their workload. The most labour-intensive part of raising weanlings is feeding. “In the past, we used drinking troughs for our animals, and in our barn next to our home farm we even still used buckets. With 350 calves, that meant a lot of work, and that’s why we had been thinking about an automated feeder for some time. We had already been in discussions with the supplier Urban, and things went from there. What was important for us was that we needed a solution that would allow us to move the automated feeders, because we do not relocate the calves from one barn to another but keep each group together in one compartment as long as we have them. That’s why the automated system is mounted on a rack, which allows us to relocate the feeders quickly with a wheel loader or forklift. That’s really very fast and also extremely useful when we clean the compartments, because we don’t need to watch out for technology,” explains Dorthe Harting. “Also, the corridors in our new housing are 4 m wide and perfect for manoeuvring. Feeding is such a relaxed thing now, whereas feeding from buckets always causes a lot of disruption.”

Lots of energy from the start

The Kühling family’s barns now contain a total of 8 Alma Pro automatic feeders, each mounted on a rack for flexible repositioning. All automatic feeders feature 4 drinking stations, a metering unit each for liquid and powdered supplements, a powder extension, a preboiler, Fit-Plus and WLAN. The powdered milk replacer is refilled at the automatic feeder from a forklift. For this purpose, the family installed special containers above the automatic feeders, which hold an 800-kg big bag each. “We therefore no longer need to lug around bags ourselves – otherwise we’d have to carry 16 bags every day,” says Walter Kühling. “During their first 3 weeks, the calves are given 6 l of feed containing 13.5% DM divided among 2 meals. Between day 21 and day 29, the daily volume is reduced from 6 l to 5 l, then to 2 l by day 41, and from day 42 they are weaned. We feed a total of 28–30 kg milk replacer per animal. When the weather is very cold, we adjust the quantity and feed a little more.” The Kühling family starts their calves off with milk replacer containing 30% skimmed milk powder, but sometimes feeds contain up to 50% in the first few days. This ensures that the animals take in a lot of energy, which is great for their development. From the first day, the calves are immediately given short-chopped straw with concentrate, and silage maize is added after 14 days. This feed supply is also automated in the new animal housing, with feed being provided by a Wasserbauer robot. In its other housing systems, the Kühling family uses two Weidemann wheel loaders with two Sieplo feed mixers to feed its weanlings. This technology also provides a back-up in case the feeding robot is unavailable for any reason. With this approach, they achieve daily weight gains of 1100 to 1200 g on average. The Kühling family believe that the results in their new housing are even better than in their old barns. The first cohort has not left yet, but things are looking very good.

Calves quickly find the automated feeders

The calves have been drinking from the automated feeders without any problems. “When the calves arrive at night, we give them time to settle in and have a rest first. They have access to as much water as they want. A few hours later we then start training them on the automated feeders. We do this by putting all calves on the one side. They are fitted with collars with transponders, which are easier to see than ear tags, and we train them individually on how to use the automated feeders. Once they have had a feed, we move them to the other side. We therefore know exactly which ones have finished feeding, and our vet, who visits on the first day, can immediately immunise the calves intranasally against flu,” explains farm manager Dorthe. “That’s when we record the transponder numbers. We enter all information about each animal on a laptop, so everything gets recorded and we are able to identify and report anything unusual. We are using an electric vehicle to move quickly through the barn. It carries everything essential that we might need to have handy. Once this process has been completed, we leave the animals alone again. We have a night light on, and the first calves usually start looking for the automated feeders during the night to get their feeds. That’s the great thing about the feeders – just like mum, they’re available 24/7.”

People and automation make an outstanding team

Dorthe Harting emphasises that automation has not meant that she spends any less time in the barn. “There’s a lot more monitoring now. Automation relieves us of physical work, and we have a clearer picture. People and automation make a fabulous team. The automated feeder alerts us of any calves that haven’t had a drink yet, so I can immediately go and have a look. This often means that something’s not quite right. Because we have WLAN in the barn and on the automated feeders, we can also check the feeder application remotely, which makes things even easier.” Raising weanlings means dealing with lots of different pathogens, because the calves come from different producers and are still very sensitive due to their young age. Having their daily intake volumes recorded or an alert generated if they haven’t accessed their full feed volume makes for an important early warning system for disease. This allows sick calves to be identified and provided with veterinary care earlier on. “Our collaboration with our vet is outstanding. Because of the size of our operations, he is a frequent visitor to our farm to administer routine treatments such as immunisations against flu and cattle ringworm or antiparasitic medication against worms and mange,” says Walter Kühling.

Short distances for the calves

The Kühling family buy their calves directly from sales yards in Bavaria, for example from Bayreuth or Traunstein, and they have built up close relationships with their suppliers. “We don’t always drive there ourselves, but we place an order, and they know what we’re after. We receive about 80 calves per week, aged between four and six weeks. They are delivered directly to us from the sales yards, without passing through collection points, and arrive at about 3 or 4 am. As a result, we receive excellent quality, and that’s something we clearly see later on in the high daily weight gains and good animal health. If something’s not right, we can also provide feedback and ask not to be supplied from a particular producer anymore,” says Dorthe Harting. She would love it if she knew even the livestock farms where the calves come from, then they could coordinate even better and carry out flu vaccinations directly on the producers’ farms, for example. This would boost the calves’ immune systems for the journey. “We care very much about our animals and want animals that have been treated well by their producers. Animals should receive the best care that is available – we owe that to them,” is the Kühling family’s credo.


Overview of the Kühling family’s weanling raising business

  • 1,790 places at three locations around Lüsche:
    • 350 at their home farm
    • 180 at a leased business
    • 420 in the housing built in 2010 + 840 in the new housing built in 2020
  • 35 hectares of arable fields, 30 hectares of grassland
  • 3 full-time workers (Dorthe Harting and her parents Walter and Christiane), Andreas Harting and a neighbour as part-time workers
  • 8 automated feeders
  • Feeding robot