By Ann Hoskins, Vita Plus calf products coordinator
Automatic calf feeders are popping up on many dairy operations across the Midwest. The 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.
Many farms with autofeeders are taking their calf nutrition programs to new levels. I have worked with producers feeding anywhere from the conventional 1.25 pounds of milk replacer powder to upwards of 3 pounds per day. For those using pasteurized milk, I see anywhere from 2 to 3 gallons per day. To say what is the right level will depend greatly on your own operation and the goals of your calf program.
The real advantage of autofeeders is the increased number of feedings per day; most commonly see four to six smaller feedings in a 24-hour period. When making the decision on how many feedings to offer per day, consider how many calves need to eat at a feeding station and whether the machine can keep up with that pace. Most feeders can handle 25 to 50 calves. One feeding station with two nipples can feed up to 50 calves per day.
Another benefit is consistent mixing and feeding temperatures with every meal. However, as a manager, you must calibrate the machine regularly to check the density of the powder and make sure it has not changed. Milk replacer powder density can vary and should be monitored.
When using an autofeeder, how you monitor calves will change. Most of our cues on calf health are picked up as we observe them during feedings. With an autofeeder system, you will need to retrain your monitoring skills. You will need to spend time visually looking at the pen of calves for any signs of distress.
The machine can also guide you in monitoring calf health. Most of these units have detailed monitoring systems that will let you know when milk consumption is down, visits to the machine have decreased, feeding durations are slower, etc. Regardless of your feeding system, you need to respond quickly to a calf in distress, especially in a group-housed system.
That leads us to some of the challenges. Grouping calves has some social advantages, but it also can lead to the quick spread of pathogens throughout the whole group. Early diagnosis is very important. You also have to work very closely with your veterinarian to make sure you vaccination protocol is up-to-date and followed.
For some, computer technology is not something you have had to deal with in the past. Even though these machines offer a lot of great monitoring tools and data, you still have to be able to retrieve the information to use it to your advantage. Not only can this data help find the calf in distress, but it can also help you to save pennies or improve calf performance. Your local equipment dealer, nutritionist or calf specialist will be able to help you decipher the programs and information.
Another new adventure for most will be the transition from hutches to a barn. Making the move to indoor housing can be a new challenge in itself. When setting up an autofeeder system, it is recommended to have at least 30 to 35 square feet of resting space per calf. Air quality is also very important. When building or renovating a facility, make sure you talk to ventilation experts to get the right specifications on what to build. When air quality is compromised, it will affect calf health and performance.
Questions to consider before making the switch
- 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.