Dairy Focus: Advantages of automated calf feeders

Farm Forum

The I-29 Extension Dairy Consortium’s recent educational effort titled Raising Your Best Calf Ever updated calf raisers on the key components of raising dairy calves. It started with a “Boots on the Farm” tour of several exceptional Minnesota calf raisers and culminated with the recent four-state workshops, the last of which was in Mandan.

Our presenters covered a host of topics related to the title, but if anything was clear, automatic calf feeders were a popular topic. These modern marvels, which only recently have migrated from Europe, are equipped to handle 25 to 30 calves per station with a typical arrangement, including two nipples to accommodate about 50 or 60 calves.

For those thinking about adding auto calf feeder technology, you have to ask, “What are the risks of moving away from individual pens to group housing?” One who has the units in place noted, “Once you fine-tuned the technology, the calves were as healthy as any we have ever raised.”

How can that be? Well, the message from these producers in the audience was that using robots (of sorts) eliminated many of the mundane chores such as correctly mixing and feeding expensive milk replacer. But more importantly, as more than one producer noted, “We don’t spend any less time with our calves. Instead of cleaning bottles and hauling milk, we find ourselves providing more daily management, observing the calves.”

This is an especially valid point because scours and other diseases can be more challenging to identify accurately in a group setting.

Another advantage of automatic feeders is convenience and being able to do calf chores on your own schedule. That is no small consideration in this time of limited affordable labor.

The auto feeders are proving in research and in practice to be a great way to feed calves to a full potential plane of nutrition. A very popular diet consisted of 28 percent protein and 20 percent fat milk replacer with soluble fiber.

For example, the Land O’Lakes Answer Farm recently reported data on 340 bull calves. It feeds 2.5 pounds of powder mixed at 15 percent solids for a 2-gallon daily feeding of replacer. Each feeding consists of 0.5 to 2 quarts of solution, and calves averaged four to eight meals per day.

In those trials, calves raised on the auto feeder grew very well but were similar to those fed the same diet in the standard two feedings per day. This is in line with research done at the University of British Columbia, which found excellent growth rates when calves were free to drink at their own pace. Nutrient utilization likely is improved when calves consume milk replacer instead of having more feedings, promoting more efficient gain.

The auto feeder does a fantastic job of properly mixing and dispensing milk replacer. The machine removes all human error associated with the process and allows operators to become calf managers, not just feeders.

The Answer Farm researchers note that the success with group housing calves was the biggest surprise of their research. On the other hand, they found that feeding starter in a bunk was far more effective. It encouraged greater intake, which most likely was a function of the calves’ herding mentality. This would be especially useful when dealing with shy or timid calves.

During the past few years, our industry has placed great emphasis on eliminating nose-to-nose contact by young calves. However, the Answer Farm researchers have yet to experience an infectious disease problem among group-fed calves or (get this) lost a calf on the feeder.

One key component to reduced mortality and morbidity can be attributed to “backgrounding” calves before starting them on the auto milk replacer feeder. As calves arrived from the maternity pen or the sale barn (the latter are typically bull calves in need of some extra attention), some managers found success in feeding calves individually in pens for up to 12 days to monitor for signs of scours and disease before transitioning the animals into group housing.

During the Answer Farm’s multiple trials, calves that were backgrounded gained an additional 10 pounds versus those that were not. So, asserting that dairies with excellent colostrum management programs may be able to background their calves for a shorter time is reasonable.

To help calves transition into groups, the auto feeder was set to feed calves only two to four times a day for the first two or three days. During the week of weaning, calves again were ramped down and limited to only two feedings per day, reducing their level of milk replacer in half. Calves quickly and aggressively switched to starter and kept eating.

Where do you get one of these marvels? See your local dairy supply store. Companies such as GEA WestfaliaSurge, Lely and DeLaval all market a version of the same machine, most of which are manufactured by Forster-Technik in Germany.

Like all technology, it is expensive, but so is labor and lost calf growth. You can anticipate a cost of about $18,000 to $23,000 upon installation, depending on your chosen options.

So what did attendees take home regarding auto feeders?

For the calves:

• Ensure calves have fresh water, clean bedding and a draft-free environment.

• Background calves individually until they have a strong suckling reflex and are disease-free.

• Monitor calf performance by evaluating computer readings of eating behavior and directly observing calves.

• Identify calves that behave abnormally and evaluate them more closely for signs of disease.

• Look for signs of dehydration such as sunken eyes, check skin tinting, and look for a lack of moisture around the nose and eyes.

For the machine:

• Monitor the mixer cleaning cycle and run it at least twice a day.

• Check the milk powder hopper and replenish if necessary.

• Calibrate powder delivery and any medication delivery at least once a week.

• Check the powder outlet of the hopper and look for any caking. Be sure to continue to use the unit’s provided screen to help avoid clogging.

• Check the suction hose and nipple several times a week, and monitor the flow rate.

• Keep the water sensor in the mixer free of mineral buildup.

Be sure to work with a calf-care expert when designing your system, make sure the level of nutrition will allow your calves to perform to their potential, and keep these procedures in mind.