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Grouping young calves for efficiency and comfort

Published on 07 October 2009
Two major concerns for every dairy farmer are feed and replacements. When looking at how to feed those replacements, it seems that the conventional system is the way to go.

Conventional meaning, mix up some dried formula or waste milk and feed the calves with a bottle. It’s simple and the way it’s been done for a long time.

At some facilities, however, the principle is not changed but the method of delivery has been altered to improve production. Automatic calf feeders have simplified calf care and improved efficiency.



Joseph Grush operates a dairy located outside of Malta, Idaho. They raise their own replacements for a herd, which has about 1,500 milking. The facility they built to house the calves can hold up to 1,500 calves, though they rarely exceed 700 calves at a time.

Instead of using hutches, calves are brought in the calf-raising building after their first feeding of colostrum. They are bottle- fed three to seven days and then they are grouped in pens of 20 to 25 calves.

“We used to have two people just feeding calves – with only half as many calves – and we had to have some extra help to clean out hutches and everything,” says Grush about how they operated before the automatic feeders.

“Now we have four workers that take care of everything from 6 months old down to newborns. They feed them all, they clean all the pens out, they clean the machines, they do everything here – vaccinate, dehorn, everything.”

The pens are bedded with straw, though many other operations use whatever is used for the cows: sand, compost, etc. as long as it’s dry, Grush emphasizes. Each group shares a calf feeder with another pen, so one machine will feed 40 to 50 calves.


Grush says the manufacturer claims it can feed up to 60, though they don’t go past 50. The machines, which were installed at the beginning of 2008, are simple-looking instruments, on the outside. A line of pasteurized milk goes into each machine, as well as a line of water.

There is a holding bin on top for powdered milk formula and a side bin where medicines, oral vaccines and vitamins can be added. The process is also simple. As the calf approaches the feeder, its ID tag will tell the computer which calf it is and then the machine mixes a small amount of feed, only a quarter of a liter.

“That’s just to test the calf,” Grush explains as a calf walks up to the machine. “Some calves come in here and play with the nipples, so the machine mixes up a quarter of a liter.”

If the calf isn’t interested in really drinking, the machine dumps the amount dispensed after a specified time. If the calf started to drink, then the machine mixes up the rest of that calf’s allotment in half-liter increments.

Each machine has a boiler that heats up the feed to a specified temperature and keeps it that way, decreasing bacteria problems. The feeding process is different from conventional systems and actually mimics nature’s process.

Grush’s feeders used to take bottles out and give a specified amount to the calves at certain times. The machines act like a surrogate mother in a pasture. The calves are eating on their own schedule. Grush can set up minimum and maximum amounts to be fed throughout the day, but he found he could not make large amounts of milk available all the time.


“You actually have to almost limit-feed them,” Grush explains. “The most you can feed them, especially when they are newborns, is one-and-a-half liters. The machine will feed them whenever they come in as long as they have the minimum amount available. What happens is they start feeding erratically and it starts messing with their stomach. So that’s why you have to limit them to only one-and-a-half liters.

"At first they have a hard time figuring that out, so the most they might drink is three liters. People think, ‘Wow, you can’t do that, you’ll kill them.’ Don’t worry, they’ll live for a couple days. Now if it’s more than a couple days you better figure out what to do with them, but usually what happens is after a couple days of only three liters they start to get hungry; they remember where food is and they learn by themselves.

"You just have to relax. That’s the biggest thing we had to learn was to just back off and let the machine feed them and they do better. It’s almost like tough love.”

This approach works best when calves are given a good start with plenty of colostrum, complete vaccinations and a good body score. Grush suggests that if you have a skinny calf, don’t put them on the machine yet. Get the calf a little more condition before starting them on the machine.

Grush’s four workers are able to keep a pretty good handle on the calves’ needs, due in part to the record-keeping system of the machines. Grush and his employees can go to a computer and review how much each calf has eaten and when. If a calf starts to go off-feed, they know it, and the computer will warn them if a calf is not getting the food it needs.

“A worker comes in the morning and sees which calves haven’t eaten and which ones have,” Grush says. “You can set it to show you calves that are at a certain point. Then the workers know which ones they need to come out and look at or keep a close eye on. The reports also show you what was eaten yesterday.

"So if the calf ate well yesterday, then we will leave it alone. If it doesn’t need help we won’t mess with it. Those that had problems yesterday, most of them we already know, they are probably already getting medicine, but it reminds people which ones need a little help getting to the machine.”

Grush works with a nutritionist to establish the mix for the calves. He says that most people feed straight line milk and do just fine. He gives straight milk to the younger calves while feeding the older calves 6 to 7 liters a day of milk and powder.

“Some people like accelerated feeding programs; we’re really not there,” says Grush. “We feed them a little powder with it just because we don’t have enough milk to feed them 100 percent milk all the time.”

Lessons learned
The system sounds simple, but Grush has had to work through some problems. Being one of the first dairymen in the Northwest to use this system, he has had to make a lot of trips to the East and other places to see how other producers are doing things.

One adjustment was getting used to managing groups. It makes handling easier and less frequent, but disease spreads quickly. Grush says you must have a good vaccination program. He prefers prevention rather than problem solving.

“Your vaccination program has to be up to snuff,” says Grush, while adding that his vaccination program isn’t real unique. “You have to make sure you get all your bases covered, all your respiratory diseases, all your clostridials, all your scour stuff. Whatever you use, make sure you cover all your bases, because if something gets in here, it will travel on you.”

He also says that ventilation is key. The facility he built always has a fan running. During the hot months, he has multiple fans running. He has noticed fewer respiratory diseases with the added ventilation.

“Ventilation is a big thing [to prevent disease],” Grush says as he points to the large fans in the top-center of the west wall of the calf barn. “We have these circulating fans, there are eight of them. They help avoid cold pockets in the winter and hot pockets in the summer. You have to keep the air quality good, because if you don’t you get a lot of pneumonia, we’ve found.”

He also keeps the building as clean as possible to prevent disease. The machines self-clean daily and the nipples are manually washed every day.

“People ask, ‘Don’t all the calves suck on them [between cleanings]?’ Yeah, they do,” Grush says. “People have gotten down under 10 percent death loss, so it must not affect them that much. They all touch noses, lick each other, drink out of the same water trough, so nipples are not as big a deal. If you clean the nipples, give them clean food, and clean the machine, you won’t grow bacteria.”

Also, getting calves used to the feeders can be difficult for some calves.

“The newborns are the ones you have to help the most,” Grush says. “Some don’t get it and need to be hand-fed. Most do figure it out eventually; some just take a little time.”

Because the calves can go to the feeder whenever they wish, there isn’t any incessant bawling whenever anyone walks in. The barn is full of content, happy calves. PD