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Automated calf feeders: 10 areas to consider

Tom Earleywine for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 May 2016
Automated calf feeders

University research continues to show that proper nutrition during the first 60 days of life positively impacts age at first calving, milk production and feed efficiency.

Interest in nutrition that allows calves to achieve their full potential has helped to increase the popularity of automated calf feeders because they help deliver the nutrients calves need during early life to optimize growth and health.



In fact, they are probably one of the most convenient ways to provide calves with a higher plane of nutrition from milk replacer. That said, they do not come without their challenges.

  1. Goals: Automated calf feeders are not a replacement for good calf management. Review your current calf program goals and objectives to ensure this system can and will align with them.

  2. Housing: This is a critical element when adding an automated feeder. Research shows that 35 to 40 square feet per calf is adequate. Producers should also consider growth rates, size at weaning, available bunk space and access to water stations.

  3. Group size: Groups of more than 20 are difficult to manage, especially if calves are less than 3 weeks old or the age range within the group is more than 10 days.

    If calves are more than 10 days apart, there tends to be too much of a size and age gap between the oldest and youngest, which can lead to bullying. Thus, smaller groups (fewer than 20) are best, and the age and weight range within the group needs to be limited.

  4. Ventilation: This is essential in any calf housing. Fresh air should be delivered uniformly to each calf to keep calf respiratory stress levels low. Air speed at the calf level should not exceed 3 mph in cold weather, but there does need to be air movement.

    Usually four air exchanges per hour is sufficient. In warm weather, however, the number of complete air exchanges of the building needs to go from four to eight to 10 per hour. Keep in mind that naturally ventilated calf barns have no ventilation on calm days. For this reason, we need to install properly designed tube ventilation systems that will bring fresh air to the calf year-round.

  5. Calf health: Think ahead to how newborn calves will be managed, introduced to the automated feeder, vaccinated and dehorned before adding this system. Training and standard operating procedures are vital to this step. It is always best to care for calves individually at first.

    Many farms put calves on the automated calf feeder at 2 to 5 days old, but ideally, they would not go on until they are 2 weeks old. Consider purchasing the automatic medicator option available on most machines, as this can be extremely handy should problems ever arise.

  6. Bedding and drainage: A minimum of 6 inches of bedding should be used with excellent drainage underneath it to allow urine and other moisture to get away from the calf and not be “stored” under the calf.

  7. Water: Access to water is critical for calf health and growth. A complete test, including minerals and bacteria, should be run at least twice a year. Avoid soft water if at all possible due to high sodium levels. In auto-feeder barns, the waterers are a major source of disease transmission, so they need to be cleaned frequently.

  8. Cleaning, sanitation and maintenance: With automated calf feeders, there are a lot of moving parts, from the powder hopper, hoses and nipples, to calibration, cleaning and sanitization. Maintain all of these pieces on a regular basis.

  9. Labor: Analysis has shown labor savings between manual and automated calf feeding can be as much as $1,200 per month for 50 calves. However, the calves still need a great deal of attention. It’s still essential to monitor calves at least twice a day without relying on the computer.

  10. Nutrition: With automated calf feeders, it’s important to have a nutrition program designed around feeding calves to their potential. A minimum of 2.5 pounds of dry matter delivered in 8.5 to 12.5 quarts of water is necessary to optimize performance.

    This feeding rate, combined with protein levels of at least 25 to 28 percent of the dry matter, are critical to obtaining the tall, lean growth needed for calves to reach key benchmarks.

Although automated calf feeders are not the best fit for all calf-raising operations, benefits of the technology include: increased feeding frequency, increased labor savings, flexibility, automated health treatments, potentially improved animal welfare and higher nutrition levels.

An efficient approach, proper planning and increased level of management, including managing the risks associated with technology, are key to optimizing the benefits of an automated calf feeder.  PD

PHOTO: Automated calf feeders are not a replacement for good calf management. Review your current calf program goals and objectives to ensure this system can and will align with them. Photo by Mike Dixon.

Tom Earleywine
  • Tom Earleywine

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