Virtual Farm Tour – Technology on Three Minnesota Dairies

Posted on November 2, 2012 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
Installing an Automatic Milk Replacer Feeder

In February of 2009, Lisa and Steve Groetsch were the first in the United States to install a Lely automatic combi feeder to feed their calves. Now they say there’s no way they’ll ever turn back.

Groetsch Dairy in Albany, Minn. is a family farm. The Groetsches milk 180 cows with a total herd of 220 animals. Lisa said the decision to install the automatic feeders was really one of efficiency. As the primary calf feeder, she didn’t want to carry and wash 100 calf pails every day. The Groetsches opted for a combi feeder so that they had the option of feeding milk replacer or waste milk in the future.

Lisa keeps the calves in individual pens for just under a week. As soon as she feels a horn button, she applies a dehorning paste to the young animals while they are drinking from a nipple bottle. They are then moved into group pens of about 20 calves and introduced to the automatic feeder. Lisa said she could see growth improvement in her calves almost immediately after installing the autofeeders. However, she said making the best use of the automatic feeder has been a learning experience.

For starters, Lisa said it’s important to keep the hoses for the autofeeders as short as possible. The machine is run by “sucking power” and the young calves have a hard time drawing the milk replacer at first. She also said it’s important to raise the height of the stand where the feeder rests. That helps to keep a clean area for the calves to stand as they are eating.

Sanitation is a key to calf health with autofeeders. The feeder is programmed to rinse the hoses with water after every calf. Lisa then sanitizes the nipples daily and the hoses weekly.

Each calf receives an RFD tag when placed in the group pen. This tag triggers the autofeeder to work and monitors how much milk replacer each calf is getting. It also keeps track of the calves’ drinking speeds and whether or not they stop drinking after just a few seconds. Lisa is able to review the records and uses them to evaluate calf health. With improved recordkeeping as a major goal, Lisa said the autofeeders have been a great way to customize feedings for each individual calf and promote overall calf health on Groetsch Dairy.

“The machine is really flexible,” Lisa said. “I would recommend considering this option if you are looking at improving your calf facilities.”

Another Approach to Automatic Feeders

Just down the road a few miles, Tim Kerfeld owns and operates Hill-View Dairy with his family in Melrose, Minn. The Kerfelds milk 165 cows and raise 210 dairy heifers. The family also runs about 300 acres and does some custom harvesting for area producers.

For a long time, Tim was unsatisfied with his calf facilities and decided to convert a section of his old dairy barn into a calf barn to improve sanitation and ventilation. Tim had originally considered installing individual stalls for all of his calves. But at $290 per stall, the price tag was just too high to be practical for Hill-View Dairy. He then saw the automatic feeder at a farm show and decided it would be a better investment.

Just like the Groetsch family, Tim installed a Lely autofeeder, but he put his own spin on the new technology. Instead of placing the calves in individual pens for the first week, Tim decided to put the young animals into group pens starting at day 1. That decision came at the recommendation of his Lely representative who said no one in Europe uses individual pens.

However, Tim keeps to a strict vaccination protocol for his youngstock. Prior to freshening, cows and heifers are vaccinated with Scourguard® 4KC. Young calves then receive Calf Guard and clostridium vaccines. As a result, Kerfeld says his calves are healthy as ever.

Tim said the best part of the autofeeder is that it provides consistent feedings for the calves every time. In the past, the regular calf feeder would be gone from time to time and someone else had to fill in. That person may not have fed the calves the exact same way and it could have affected performance. This way, no matter who is adding milk replacer to the autofeeder, the calves receive the exact same nutrition every time.

Tim said, “It takes the human error out of it.”

Custom-Designed Calf Barn Leads to Healthy Calves

If you ask Nick Meyer of Meyer Dairy in Sauk Centre, Minn., three components are essential to raising healthy calves:  pasteurized milk, clean pens and fresh, dry bedding.

Those three components are all integrated into the new calf facilities at Meyer Dairy. A year and a half ago, Nick and his wife, Tara, converted their old tie stall barn into a calf barn. The calves are placed in individual pens for six weeks and then move to group pens of 15 animals.

The barn was designed so that an entire row of the 36 individual pens can be cleaned at one time and left empty for awhile to help sanitize the pens. The stalls are home-built from converted pig gates and feature wide fronts. Nick and Tara said the wide open fronts allow for better airflow and more comfortable calves. In addition, the water and feed pails are spread further apart to keep water from slopping into the feed or vice versa. The calves are always bedded with fresh, clean straw and a drainage system runs under each pen.

Nick and Tara also decided to add a pasteurizer to their calf barn to feed waste milk to the young animals. Tara said the animals are now growing faster and she’s seen earlier weaning times.

Similar to the autofeeders at the previous two farms, installing the technology required some learning along the way. For example, Tara regularly tests the bacteria levels in the pasteurizer. She said she’s learned it’s best to store the raw milk and pasteurize it right before feeding rather than pasteurizing immediately and then letting it sit for a few hours until feeding. This – in addition to daily cleanings with bleach and weekly acid cleaning – helps to minimize pathogen levels.

Tara said they’re also still learning to work out timing issues. With many chores and responsibilities on the 175-head dairy farm, it’s sometimes tough to find a balance between getting everything done and providing consistency in feeding the calves. However, Tara’s close recordkeeping assists with that challenge. Charts posted near the pasteurizer help her keep track of each calf, its nutrition requirements and its weaning date. In addition, the Meyers said they rely on continual employee training to make sure everyone is on the same page for raising healthy calves.

Category: Farm tours
Starting Strong - Calf Care