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Best management practices for auto calf feeders

Tom Earleywine Published on 16 September 2010

Feeding calves to their potential is critical during the first 60 days. Research has shown that the nutrition a calf receives during its first 60 days of life has a lasting impact by affecting both her age at first calving as well as her first-lactation performance. An automatic calf feeder can be a great way to feed calves the nutrition they need to grow and perform to their full potential while providing the proper management and observation needed to raise a healthy herd.

Because of increasing interest and use of automatic calf feeders on farms across the country, we purchased our own automatic calf feeding unit two- and-a-half years ago for the purpose of testing the usability and effectiveness of automatic calf feeders.



Here’s what producers should think about when considering whether an automatic calf feeder is right for their operation:

Utilizing an automatic calf feeder will necessitate a move to group housing. However, the housing needs of the calf will not change. In order for calves to thrive, housing must provide good ventilation; dry and comfortable resting areas; access to feed and water; and confident footing.

Calves raised on an automatic calf feeder are able to consume more nutrients through multiple feedings per day. Nutrition consumption and feed efficiency can be improved. Calves have been shown to have excellent growth rates when able to drink at their own pace as with an automatic calf feeder.
Calves tend to average four to eight meals per day. A low level of milk offered tends to increase the time spent at the feeder, specifically time spent while not drinking, as the calf’s hunger is not satisfied. During the week of weaning, calves should be limited to two feedings per day, with the level of milk replacer cut in half.

The implementation of an automatic calf feeder eliminates the need for mixing and feeding milk replacer and removes human error associated with the process.

With the automatic calf feeder mixing and dispensing the milk replacer, a person feeding calves is able to become a calf manager. The time previously spent on mixing and feeding now can be diverted to the careful monitoring of calf health, growth and performance. Group housing issues are negated with the additional attention and time calf managers are able to give to the care and well-being of the animals.


The use of an automatic calf feeder requires a well-trained manager, who is able to properly monitor and identify calf health and performance in group housing. The calf manager should be able to identify illness and disease through observation and specifically address the needs of raising a strong and healthy herd. This greatly changes the type of labor needed for calf raising and can reduce labor costs.

Getting calves started
To counter the infectious disease issue associated with group housing, starter calves should be housed and fed individually for six to 12 days (depending on the quality of colostrum management program, vigor of the calf and the age disparity within the group) before the transition to group housing. This time frame allows staff to closely monitor for signs of scours and disease and reduces the impact of the transition on the calf. Calves should have a strong sucking reflex, be aggressively drinking milk replacer and disease- free before the move into group housing.
In addition, direct observation by the calf manager assists in the mitigation of diseases. Calves that exhibit signs of illness should be isolated and treated to avoid contamination of the rest of the calf herd.

Proper function and maintenance of the automatic calf feeder is critical to its success. Poorly functioning equipment, inadequate cleaning solution or other problems can expose calves to bacteria associated with diseases. The calf manager should be trained to check the equipment on a routine basis to confirm the clean-in-place (CIP) system is functioning properly. Equipment should also be regularly checked to include the following:

• Check the milk powder hopper and replenish, if necessary.
• Calibrate powder delivery and medication delivery at least once a week.
• Check the detergent container and replenish, if necessary.
• Check the powder outlet of the milk powder hopper and of the additive hopper.
• Remove incrustations, as they impair dosing accuracy.
• Keep water sensor in mixer free of mineral buildup.
• Check suction hose and nipple several times per week.

The automatic calf feeder shifts the calf care focus from an individual basis to a group level. This necessitates the need for a calf management program to monitor individual calf performance and evaluate eating behavior. Transition calves will require an increase in their feed intake after the first week. Conversely, calves ready to be weaned will need their feed rate reduced. Relying on a calf management program to track growth rates is critical to the success of an automatic calf feeder, but direct observation of the calves still needs to be done.

Calf nutrition is one of the most important investments producers can make to ensure a profitable future for their herd. An automatic calf feeder can become part of a successful calf- raising program when combined with nutrition that allows calves to reach their potential. Producers should consult with their local calf care expert today to ensure their calves grow to their full potential. PD


Tom Earleywine