By Ann Hoskins
Automatic calf feeders are popping up on many dairy operations across the Midwest. The new technology offers plenty of opportunities, but it also requires a refocus on management. The decision of whether autofeeders fit your calf program needs to be made only after careful consideration of how the opportunities and challenges will play out on your operation.
- Autofeeders provide more nutrition at shorter intervals. Calves receive more feedings per day, allowing you to capitalize on their early growth potential.
- Autofeeders allow for more flexibility in labor because you don’t need to be in the barn at the same time every day. However, that doesn’t mean less labor. It’s simply a change in labor and management practices.
- Autofeeders provide consistent mixing with an easy-flowing milk replacer every time. Vita Plus Calf Precision was designed to work especially well for autofeeders.
- If you’re not feeding calves every day, you’re missing out on valuable observation time. This requires you to learn other techniques for watching behavioral patterns and identifying potentially weak calves.
- Learning the computer system of autofeeders is not an easy process. You’ll need to learn how they work and how you can use them to your advantage.
- If switching from hutches, you’ll need to learn how to manage the new facility and factors such as ventilation, bedding, cleaning, etc.
- Group housing means calves will have nose-to-nose contact with their pen mates. This calls for increased emphasis on vaccination and disease control programs.
Top questions to ask yourself
- What do you expect out of your calf program? How will the autofeeder help you accomplish that goal?
- What information do you depend on to consistently raise healthy calves? What kind of a reporting system do you use? How do you monitor calf performance?
- How will you adapt your current nutrition program to fit the autofeeder system?
- What are your current facilities? Will you need to renovate or update existing barns or sheds? Will you need to build new?
- Do you have enough calves to pay for the investment in a reasonable amount of time? Will it take too long for the significant investment to prove valuable?
- What is your calf flow? How many calves do you have per week? Per month? How will that fit in the rotation? Will you use an all-in-all-out system? How will you group calves?
- What is your current labor situation? How will you train employees on the new system? Who will you go to as a resource?
Automatic calf feeders can be immensely valuable in well managed calf programs. With careful consideration and attention to detail, your program can be adapted to take advantage of the new technology. Just remember to do your research and be honest about your needs and abilities before making the big decision. Consult with your nutritionist, tour other facilities and make sure the machine you get is the right fit for your operation.
Click here for a video discussion of autofeeders from the February 2011 edition of Starting Strong Calf Chat with Ann.
Check out these virtual farm tours of dairy operations that take advantage of automatic calf feeders:
Virtual Farm Tour: MDS Dairy (August 2011)
Virtual Farm Tour: Technology on Three Minnesota Dairies (August 2010 - Groetsch Dairy and Hill-View Dairy)
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About the author: Ann Hoskins is the Vita Plus calf products manager. She grew up on a dairy farm in DeForest, Wis., which she says is instrumental to where she is today. “The lessons and values I gained growing up in this industry has given me the passion to stay involved and continue to learn more every day.” Hoskins earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has spent that last five years at Vita Plus, working with producers to improve performance and help them reach the goals of their calf operations.