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Accelerated group feeding has potential long-term benefits

Jim Mattox for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 January 2016
Group housing is a more natural way to raise calves

Dairy farms historically raised pre-weaned calves in hutches or individual pens. This made feedings easier, allowed for individual monitoring and curbed disease outbreaks. As more farms transition to group housing, this traditional method is being challenged.

Calves raised in groups enjoy a more natural environment that develops their herd behavior at an earlier stage in life. An automated feeding system, standard in most group-housing systems, closely mimics a calf’s natural levels of nutrient intake.

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It provides the benefit of delivering more consistent meals at a higher frequency, freshly prepared around the clock at optimal portion sizes and temperatures.

A robotic feeding system delivers meals and also provides key performance indicators to the producer, such as an individual’s drinking speed, meal sizes and feeder visits.

Producers who switch say they prefer robotic calf feeders because they convert menial chores, like washing bottles, into value-added tasks like monitoring calf health records and giving extra attention to calves with special needs.

Potential benefits

Group feeding signifies a move by the dairy industry to be more proactive, as opposed to reactive, with calf care. Instead of merely providing adequate nutrition, accelerated feeding enables a healthy maturation of the gut. An increasing number of studies suggest a calf’s most efficient growth period is during its first two months of life.

The studies also suggest the most productive animals are prepared for success at birth instead of five to six months later. A meta-analysis of seven university studies, performed by Cornell University, saw an average increase in first-lactation milk production of more than 1,500 pounds for calves on accelerated growth programs (Table 1).

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calves on execrated growth programs

When done correctly, accelerated group calf feeding will cost more up-front in milk replacer but pay back when those calves mature. There is no proven explanation why this occurs. Realistically, there could be several factors at play.

One hypothesis is: Accelerated feeding leads to increased mammary cell growth prior to weaning. Another hypothesis suggests stem cell proliferation might lead to greater secretory cells once a heifer is impregnated.

Increased future production is appealing, but the real economic argument in favor of accelerated group feeding is lower replacement costs. To maximize the return on investment, researchers at the University of New Hampshire found growing replacement heifers to breeding height and weight within 12 to 14 months is crucial. Ask yourself how many of your heifers are calving at 22 months or sooner and what that could potentially contribute to your bottom line.

Their study also found that calves raised in groups and fed a high-protein diet on robotic calf feeders had lower glucose levels and higher urea in their blood at weaning when compared to conventional feeding methods. This suggests that these calves adjusted better to the diet over the weaning period and are transitioning quicker into ruminants.

Automated feeding considerations

Developing lean, muscular calves that are well adapted is not as easy as simply buying a robot. When installing an automated feeding system, the daily routine becomes based on management rather than routine.

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Robotic feeders will still require daily maintenance and cleaning, so owners rarely report spending any less time in the calf barn. However, there is the added flexibility of managing the barn on their own schedule.

Robots may operate continuously, but there are service kits to install and software to update. The potential for human error still exists, but opportunities for it to occur diminish. Additionally, an automated feeding system performs optimally when the producer customizes the feeding schedule. This helps smaller or younger calves excel in conjunction with their larger counterparts.

Anyone considering a robotic calf feeding system should have a lengthy conversation with the dealer to understand what may happen in the 24 months after startup. This discussion should include service intervals and preventative maintenance budgets.

It should also determine which parts will be stocked at the farm and which parts will be stocked at the dealership.

Producers new to robotic calf feeding should diligently follow all cleaning and maintenance instructions from the manufacturer. Failing to perform recommended maintenance routines on time could cost you dearly. Waiting “until next time” to replace a gasket could wind up costing a new boiler.

Another consideration when purchasing a robotic calf feeder is the inclusion of a heifer activity monitoring system. Breeding-age heifers are often the farthest away from the barn and easily forgotten.

Accelerated group feeding increases the financial investment in calves, so it becomes even more critical to realize payback with increased conception rates. An activity system for heifers should be thought of as doubling down on your investment.

Planning for the future

Group housing is a more natural way to raise calves because it promotes natural herd instincts and nutrient intake. It also allows operators to customize the system to potentially raise larger animals sooner. There are several considerations that make it a hands-on endeavor, but many producers have thrived. The recipe for success comes from a thorough understanding of all its nuances.

The rumen is the moneymaker that turns expensive feed into milk. Developing that rumen at an early age and then harvesting milk as soon as possible will help increase cash flow by decreasing replacement costs and increasing revenues. Group calf feeding is not for every operation, but its economic advantage can be immense.  PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

PHOTO 1: Group housing is a more natural way to raise calves because it promotes natural herd instincts and nutrient intake. Photo by Emily Caldwell.

Tim Clark
  • Jim Mattox

  • Solution Manager – Feeding Systems and Nutrition
  • DeLaval Inc.
  • Email Jim Mattox

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