Top Dairy Farms rely on automated Calf feeding systems.

Published on Wed, 08/08/2018 - 10:12am

 Top Dairy Farms rely on automated Calf feeding systems.

 Article and photos courtesy of Förster-Technik GmbH.

 With growing interest in animal welfare, group housing and self-determined feed intake for calves are becoming more and more popular. Automatic calf feeders allow calves to drink higher amounts whenever they want and thus act out their natural drinking behavior. The result is well growing, healthy calves that grow into high-performing and long-living dairy cows.

Since 1971, the German company Förster-Technik GmbH develops innovative solutions for automated calf feeding. In North America, the company is represented by its subsidiary Foerster-Technik North America Inc. Many dairy farms all over the world use feeding systems from Förster-Technik and are satisfied with their technical solution.
The Milking R Dairy Farm in Okeechobee, Florida, was started in 1940 by the Rucks family. Today Sutton and Kris Rucks own and operate the farm in collaboration with their two children, Lindsey and Garrett, and Lindsey’s fiancé Mark. Milking R herd is around 1600 cows plus youngstock. Four years ago, in July of 2014, the Rucks decided to change their calf feeding system into an automatic one. With great support from their dealer, Steve Walker from Emory Walker Co., they bought and installed three Förster-Technik automatic calf feeders. Lindsey Rucks, who graduated at the University of Florida and came back to the farm in 2014, now oversees the calf barn as well as the heifers on the farm. She is happy with the automated solution: “The decision to move to the Förster-Technik feeders happened for many reasons. Before the feeders, we only raised our heifers for the first week, then they were shipped to a grower out of state and did not return until they were pregnant. With the ever-changing dairy economy, we knew that we had to make a change and knew we had the infrastructure to raise our replacements in house. We also were
looking into ways to improve performance and growth for our heifers. The Förster-Technik feeders were an easy choice for our farm and would easily pay for themselves over time. Over four years have passed and the ripple effect in our herd is mind blowing. We love that our calves have an option when they drink. With our very hot and humid climate, more than six months out of the year, calves sometimes are not interested in their afternoon feeding and having automatic feeders completely eliminates that problem. They choose when to eat and never have to wait until the morning feeding. Our barn is very active in the coolest parts of our day and the calves can relax and socialize in their climate controlled environment. In September 2017, Hurricane Irma impacted our area. As the storm approached and the weather intensified, we lost power and had to use our backup generator. The power was out about 30 minutes before someone was able to safely turn it on and the calves were not happy about having to wait on us! In the middle of a Category 4 Hurricane, our calves did not miss a beat on the feeders. Mother Nature did not set our calves back a bit and having our automatic feeders paid off during such a trying time. We were able to know our calves were content and we could focus on other parts of the farm that had been affected.”
The calves of the Rucks family are housed in individual wire pens for the first days of their lives. On day 10 they are moved to the automatic feeder in groups of 25 to 30 calves. “Calves are on a 12- or 15-liter program and are weaned at 55 days. Each meal is up to 3 liters. Our average daily gain has gone from 1.8 to 2.4 lb. Our calves come off the feeders aggressive, well grown and with social skills. Calves learning to socialize and become herd mates are another plus for automated feeding systems. We find that our calves build up immunity from group housing and have seen both our mortality and morbidity rates drop since starting with Förster-Technik feeders. Our mortality rate is less than 1 % and our morbidity rate is around 15 % for calves on the feeders and 2 % for all other heifers on the farm.”

But how does automated feeding reduce diseases? Due to the intensive feeding throughout the day, calves are optimally supplied with energy. The natural, self-determined feed intake prevents hunger and stress. In addition, the automatic calf feeders log detailed information about drinking behavior and speed of each calf. Lindsey Rucks tells: “Being able to monitor drinking speed is a wonderful tool. 99 % of the time you can find and treat a calf that is just starting to get sick. We have been able to keep many a calf from becoming too ill and missing meals. Overall, this has impacted our average daily gain because consumption never plummets.”
Good calf rearing is the decisive basis for successful dairy farming. During four years with automated calf feeding, Lindsey Rucks was able to observe the changes in the herd: “The impact on our herd has been significantly noticeable. We have seen our age at first calving drop to 22.5 months. Our cows are outperforming themselves, with cows on their 2nd and 3rd lactation shattering our past records for peak milk. We have been able to sell replacements as well. Having too many heifers is definitely a good problem to have. Our Förster-Technik feeders have given us profitable animals and have drastically lowered our cull rates.

The feeders have helped us raise IVF heifer calves from some of my Brown Swiss herd, RAD-ical Genetics. These heifers have gone to compete at shows like World Dairy Expo and have garnered various awards and several All-American nominations. Being able to compete in the show ring, calves need to be well grown and Förster-Technik feeders have made that possible.”
If you are also interested in automated calf feeding systems, please contact Jan Ziemerink from Foerster-Technik North America Inc. under 519-239-9756 or You can also visit Förster-Technik at the World Dairy Expo in the Trade Center, booth number 915, and get further information about automatic calf feeders and other technical solutions for your calf rearing.