Autofeeders have advanced since they were first released on the market. According to Ann Hoskins, Vita Plus calf products coordinator, more advanced autofeeders come with a reconsideration of how to manage your facility.
Hoskins said autofeeders are free-range feeding systems. They allow milk on demand for the calves that are grouped around a feeder. Every calf has the ability to have an individual feeding plan and drinks a certain allotment every visit. Hoskins recommended a maximum of 25 calves to one unit, which has two feeding stations. It is important to avoid larger groups because it takes seven to eight minutes for a calf to drink one allotment from the time it gets up and walks to the feeder until it is finished eating.
Hoskins emphasized the importance of air flow and quality in the group pens to manage respiratory health. “Without air flow and air quality, you’re not going to succeed,” she said.
Just like everything else in the industry, autofeeders have both advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage is the extra nutrition the calves receive. With increased nutrition, the calves have stronger immune systems, making it easier for them to be in nose-to-nose contact with other calves. Hoskins said she has worked with producers that were feeding an average 1.25 pounds of milk replacer powder per day conventionally to nearly 3 pounds per day when using an autofeeder. Since the calves are drinking more, it is important to make sure the animals are reduced slowly in milk consumption.
Autofeeders provide a concise amount every time the calf comes up to drink. Most machines get rid of the milk in six to twelve minutes, ensuring freshness. In addition, calves placed in groups when they are young have better social interactions and bedding them is easier.
Labor savings is thought to be another big advantage with autofeeders, but Hoskins said, “You’re not using your arms, you’re using your mind.”
Based on that principle, autofeeders need to be monitored with attentive management. It is important the manager spends time with the calves to make sure that they are comfortable in their groups – not too big, and not too small – and are not having negative social interactions. Autofeeders also come with software that records a lot of data for each calf. While this can be very helpful, Hoskins warned, “Don’t get too wrapped up in the data and forget about the animals!”
Managers need to be proactive in taking proper care of the machine, testing the milk solids and keeping them constant, and calibrating the machine every week to 10 days. Some worry about the potential for disease transfer in group pens, but Hoskins said, “with clean, dry bedding, adequate air flow, management, increased levels of nutrition, and cleanliness in the machine, this shouldn’t become a problem.”
Are autofeeders here to stay?
“I think autofeeders are going to continue to play a role in calf rearing operations as we move forward,” Hoskins said, “but as always, you get out what you put in.”