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5 steps to a successful automatic calf feeder nutrition program

Tom Earleywine for Progressive Dairyman Published on 21 November 2017
Automatic calf feeders

The beauty of automatic calf feeders is: They allow you to increase intakes without increasing meal size or labor. However, you can’t simply install the technology and walk away.

It takes a lot of careful thought and planning to ensure your calves are getting the best nutrition.



Follow these five steps to successfully implement a nutrition plan for your automatic calf feeder.

Step 1: Choose a nutrition plan

There are two main types of automatic calf feeder nutrition plans: restricted and unlimited.

Restricted systems allow you to set the total volume per calf per day and the maximum amount each calf can drink in one feeding. If a calf doesn’t drink its full allotment at a given meal, they can drink more at the next meal until it consumes the maximum total daily volume.

Unlimited systems allow calves to drink as much as they want. Calves are only limited by a maximum amount per meal to prevent over-drinking at one time. This allows calves to drink what comes naturally and helps maximize intake for better growth rates.

Whether you choose a restricted or unlimited system, ensure calves are consuming 8 to 12 liters or more of milk or milk replacer per day.


Step 2: Set meal allowance

A common myth with automatic calf feeders is: Calves should drink several meals per day – but that’s not always the case. Automatic calf feeders allow calves to have a more natural consumption pattern, which usually means fewer, larger meals, especially as they get older.

Allow calves to drink 2 to 3 liters per feeding to help maximize intakes and improve growth. Smaller meal sizes can leave calves hungry and cause them to gather around the feeders, preventing other calves from drinking.

Step 3: Adjust solids levels

Automatic calf feeders allow for precise mixing of milk replacer by automatically adding a pre-selected amount of powder per liter of water. However, it’s up to you to program the machine to deliver the correct quantities.

The ideal solids level for automatic calf feeders is 150 to 180 grams of powder per liter or 13 to 15 percent solids. Lower solids levels force calves to drink a high volume of liquid to achieve the same amount of dry matter intake.

Don’t forget to check the calibration of your automatic calf feeder once a week or whenever a new batch of powder is added to ensure accurate solids levels.

Step 4: Monitor starter intakes

Monitoring starter intake is critical to managing calves on automatic calf feeders. Unlike individually fed calves, it can be a challenge to determine exactly how much starter to feed. Not enough starter can cause competition issues, but too much starter can lead to waste.


As a rule of thumb, provide the minimum amount of starter needed so the bunk is nearly clean at the end of the day or half-day, depending on how often you feed. Gradually increase starter amounts as calves grow to prepare for weaning. Ensure calves are eating at least 3 pounds of starter per day before beginning the weaning process.

Step 5: Implement step-down weaning

It’s important to keep nutrition levels high during weaning to minimize growth dips. With a step-down weaning process and excellent starter management, calves should recover and even increase growth rates within a few days post-weaning.

Start weaning calves by reducing the total volume of milk or milk replacer allowed per day by half. This gives calves time to adjust to lower milk intake and naturally increase starter consumption. Allow calves to stay at this level until they are eating more starter and their behavior indicates they’re getting comfortable with less milk before completely removing milk from the diet.

Automatic calf feeders are a great tool to feed calves more nutrition. Use these five steps to create a nutrition plan to help your calves reach their full potential.  end mark

PHOTO: Automatic calf feeders allow calves to have a more natural consumption pattern for increased intakes. Photo courtesy of Land O’Lakes.

Tom Earleywine
  • Tom Earleywine

  • Director of Nutritional Services
  • Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products
  • Email Tom Earleywine