Accommodating Management Strategy for Auto Calf Feeder Success

Published on Tue, 01/12/2021 - 10:41am

Accommodating Management Strategy for Auto Calf Feeder Success.

 By Jaclyn Krymowski.

 Automatic calf feeders are incredible labor savers, but they come with additional challenges beyond the financial cost.

Asides from cutting back hours of manual labor, auto systems mimic some of the more “natural” characteristics of calf feeding. Calves can consume milk at their own pace and have customized weaning programs. But the additional management challenges involved with these feeders make them not ideal for every operation.

Installing this technology without giving due attention to the calves, management and strict hygiene protocols is a recipe for disaster. Auto feeders demand attention to detail and regular monitoring, as well as a change in thinking when it comes to disease prevention and treatment. Luckily, many there are plenty of success stories out there by farms of all sizes who made these systems work for them, their calves and their bottom line.

Understanding the big picture
Unlike traditional bottle feedings, calf feeders have lots of flexibility in consumption rates and allotted to individual animals. Similar to how a calf might nurse on a cow, feeders allow them to make their own frequent visits, usually in smaller portions than a typical hand feeding. Different calibrations put total control of feeding frequency and amount into the hands of the manager to ensure no calf over-indulges. This setup has been shown to produce better weaning weights and overall increased body condition scores in different studies.  

This also gives you greater flexibility in weaning times, allowing milk servings to be cut back more gradually than in a traditional bottle or bucket setup. This makes the whole process less stressful. On the negative side, ability to visit the feeder means sick and weak calves may not drink as often as they should, requiring careful surveillance and action.

Additionally, most feeder systems are flexible with your program and can accommodate for waste or dump milk, powdered replacer or a hybrid of the two. While much of auto feeder management is geared towards growing calves, the importance of getting newborns off to the right start cannot be understated. To be successful, you may need to accommodate your management as far back as in the maternity barn, long before calves are introduced to a feeder.

Calf care – before and during auto feeding
Setting up auto feeding begins before you train a calf to find the nipple. Whenever calves are housed in a group, they are at a considerable increased risk for disease transfer. When they are sharing a communal nipple and feeding area, it goes up even more.

A surefire way to get auto feeder calves off to a good start is being aggressive with colostrum management. According to a bulletin from the University of Kentucky’s Depart of Animal and Food Science, farms using auto feeders should monitor serum protein levels of calves to ensure colostrum is being fed sufficiently. Calves should have a minimum of 5.5 g/dl or greater. Calves below 5.0 g/dl have been shown to be at a greater risk for health problems down the road.

Before introducing calves to the groups and feeders, it is recommended they be housed individually for some time. In the Milk Specialties Global’s Automatic Calf Feeder Handbook, they recommend all calves be hand raised individually for one to two full weeks before being transitioned into the group housing they will be in for the auto feeders. Not only does this help keep calves healthy before they transition, it also gets them trained on nipples making feeder training easier.

When moving animals in groups, the general recommendation is to keep them smaller for easier management and to reduce the likelihood of a disease outbreak. Likewise, grouping with similar ages and weights makes it easier to group wean.  This sets you up to move an entire pen out at once for properly cleaning and sanitizing before the next one is old enough to move in.

The environment you put new calves in, especially in group pens, is one of the most pivotal things that will determine the outcome of an auto feeding program. While many auto feeding systems do quite a bit of self-cleaning, they still require daily external cleaning, sanitizing and general upkeep. Daily cleaning is also a great opportunity to make sure everything is functioning properly.

Mold and milk film can build up in, on and around all the pieces calves and milk touch. Even with a self-cleaning system, nipples need to be replaced and cleaned regularly. The Automatic Calf Feeder Handbook recommends doing this every 24 hours at the absolute least and giving washed and sanitized nipples another full 24 hours to dry.

Besides being monitored and hosed down, a calf-safe disinfectant should be used on and around the feeding environment to break down biofilms and other bacterial build-up, especially around where the calves are eating.

Auto feeding can tell which calves are decreasing intake and by how much, functioning as an additional tool to catch disease early. To reduce contamination, sick calves should be removed at the earliest they display of any symptoms and housed individually for treatment.

Other practical ways to decrease disease transition and boost stress-free weaning includes having clean keeping clean, available water and investing in a high-quality starter grain. Even if setting an auto feeder can help customize and reduce stressful weaning, calves will be reluctant to consume starter grain if it is unpalatable, unfamiliar and not offered with adequate fresh water.  

Deciding factors
Similar to robotic milkers, one of the biggest considerations to an automatic feeding system is expense and value of labor saved.

According to a 2012 white paper by dairy extension specialists Jennifer Bentley and Jim Paulson, a single unit for a two nipple feeding station costs between $17,000 and $20,000. Additional components, such as a computer and software, increase the initial cost by about $4,000. If depreciation is factored in, that equates to about $4,400 per year per unit.

From there, the cost of labor savings can be calculated fairly easily. Simply calculate the number of calves each feeder would feed per year (factoring in group size and how many weeks of milk feeding) and the approximate minutes per day it takes to feed a calf by hand. Add up the hours and multiply by your hourly rate for an estimated yearly cost. Then, calculate approximately how many minutes each calf will visit the feeder per day, add the hours, multiple by your rate and see how much the cost you are paying versus the annual cost for so many hours of calf feeding the auto setup is doing for you.

Even without hired help, there is still a labor savings to an automated system. Besides saving time on individual feedings, properly managed and maintained auto feeders can improve overall calf health via increased weaning weights and healthier calves.

Other things to consider are what additional assets a feeder can offer regarding software, technical support and service fees. Fortunately, it isn’t hard to find a regional dairy who has been successful on auto calf feeders. Many are happy to share their experiences with curious colleagues.

If this additional technology seems like it could be an asset to your dairy, be sure you are willing to change and improve your own management practices to best accommodate this system. Automatic calf feeders can only work as well as they are managed.