These 6 metrics can help you manage calves in autofeeder systems
By Ann Hoskins
Automatic calf feeders can provide helpful insight into daily calf management as well as overall trends of the calf feeding program. In turn, this can help you create efficiencies, make management decisions and improve calf performance.
The first metrics come on day one of a calf’s life, as colostrum management is a big driver in the success of an autofeeder program.
The Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards for colostrum recommend calves receive 1 gallon of colostrum that scores higher than 22% on a Brix scale within two hours after birth.
Fresh colostrum should have a standard plate count that is less than 50,000 cells per milliliter and a coliform count less than 5,000 cells per milliliter. Heat-treated colostrum should have a standard plate count of less than 20,000 cells per milliliter and a coliform count less than 100 cells per milliliter.
Check serum total protein concentration to determine whether the colostrum feeding program is working. Samples should be collected at least 24 hours after colostrum is fed and not later than 4 days of age. DCHA’s Gold Standards now recommend at least 40% of calves score higher than 6.2 grams per deciliter on a total protein scale.
2. Feed plans
When evaluating feed plans, determine whether calves are actually consuming what the plan says they should consume. Do calves consistently reach their consumption peaks? Is that consumption helping calves achieve performance goals, such as average daily gain (ADG) or cost per pound of gain? Other metrics to evaluate feed plans may include calf morbidity or incidence of cross-sucking.
If feeding milk replacer, ensure the solids concentration is appropriate for the program goals. Typically, milk replacer solids concentration should be between 12.5% to 15%.
Strong starts are important when calves begin using autofeeders. When looking at early feeding data, calves should consistently drink a minimum of 4 to 6 quarts in the first three to four days on the feeder. We also want these young calves to have rewarded visits. Feed plans, minimums, maximums and stocking density can all impact the amount and frequency of young calves’ consumption.
Looking at day-to-day patterns is important. Personally, I first look at how a group of calves is consuming from day to day and then look at the individuals. If the group is off, I immediately check to see if the feeder is working correctly. If a calf is off slightly on one day, I’m usually not concerned. But, if its consumption continues to drop, it should be flagged and checked.
4. Drinking speeds
Many producers use drinking speed as an early identifier of struggling calves. Drinking speed is measured in liters per minute and the goal is to be at least 100% of the previous day. The benchmark for concern is 80% of the previous day.
Using alarms is an easy way to monitor calves. They can be set for consumption, drinking speeds and more, and show up on the autofeeder’s home screen. Working with your dealership or consultant to dial in your alarm settings will help to identify the calves that need assistance.
6. Overall trends
Reviewing data for a group of calves can help you evaluate whether management practices (such as vaccinations, dehorning, weaning programs and feed changes) cause big dips in calves’ consumption.
Autofeeders will most likely provide you with more data than you will use on a daily basis. Because each calf program is different, it is key to develop your own benchmarks and track the metrics that will help you evaluate the continued success of your operation.
This article was originally written for the August 25, 2023, issue of Progressive Dairy. Click here for the original article.
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 spent that last several years at Vita Plus, working with producers to improve performance and help them reach the goals of their calf operations.