Set autofeeders to match your calf-feeding goals

Posted on October 13, 2021 in Dairy Performance
By Ann Hoskins

All the settings of an autofeeder work together and one change can affect the others.  Program the machine so that milk volume, minimum and maximum limitations, and concentration match your calf-feeding strategy.

When deciding on a feeding plan, think about when these calves will enter the feeder and what they are consuming prior to entry.  Whether you are feeding milk replacer, whole milk or a combination of the two, be consistent.  Calves will train better and adjust to the feeder if you are feeding the same milk source between backgrounding and the autofeeder.  It is ideal to keep the concentration the same throughout the feeding process.

Restricted plans
Restricted plans set the maximum allotted volume for the day, how often the calf can receive milk at the feeder, and the maximum volume at each visit.  Once a calf drinks for the first time in a daily cycle, the machine will calculate when she can drink again and the milk volume she will be allowed to not exceed the maximum setting.

When using a restricted program for calves of various ages on one machine with multiple stations, adjust the feeding plan to make sure the youngest calves have more availability to drink.  Setting your minimums lower for your youngest calves will result in more rewarded visits.  This helps with the training process.

Unrestricted plans
Unrestricted plans are more free-flowing and generally allow calves an unlimited volume of milk per day, but the meal size is controlled.  These programs are becoming more popular for the youngest groups as these calves can drink more often, resulting in the most rewarded visits.  Watching your rewarded and unrewarded visits – along with total milk consumption – can help you decide if an unrestricted program is the right fit.

At some point, all calves will need to be put on a restricted plan to limit milk intake and encourage starter intake to start the weaning process.  If calves are drinking high volumes of milk, a mid-level drop will help the highest consumers adjust to less volume.  Continue this mid-level feeding for a week or so before starting the milk weaning ramp-down.  If the drop is too dramatic, you will likely see more bunching at the feeder, tail biting, cross-sucking and other oral behaviors.

When weaning calves, make sure they can still get enough rewarded visits while their milk program declines.  In my experience, by the end of the milk program, many calves will start to wean themselves.  Thus, it’s essential to provide constant availability of fresh feed and water.

Let your calves tell you what to do
Calf behavior can tell you a lot about the effectiveness of your feeding plan.  In addition to the number of rewarded versus unrewarded visits, watch calf competition at the feeder, drinking behavior, total milk volume consumed and weaning behavior.  Work with your dealer to understand how the machine settings interact with each other and impact the calf feeding programs.  In addition, you should also “read” the calves to decide if adjustments should be made.  Between the information the autofeeder provides and your calf observations, you have a tremendous amount of data to help make decisions that will optimize your calf program.

This article was originally written for the May 7, 2021, issue of Progressive Dairy magazine.  Click here for the original article.  Click here to access Vita Plus Starting Strong for more calf care expertise and practical tips.

About the author:  Ann Hoskins is a Vita Plus sales manager and calf program manager.  She grew up on a dairy farm in DeForest, Wisconsin, which she says is instrumental to where she is today.  “The lessons and values I gained growing up in this industry have 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 been a Vita Plus owner for more than a decade, working with producers to improve performance and help them reach the goals of their calf operations.

Category: Autofeeders
Calf and heifer nutrition
Calf nutrition
Dairy Performance
Technology and data management