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How to evaluate success when feeding calves with auto-feeders

Robert James for Progressive Dairyman Published on 06 May 2019

You have made a considerable investment in the calf auto-feeder system. But was it worth it? To determine this, focus on these two areas: calf performance and health and labor.

The gold standards of the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association (DCHA) recommend calves should double their birthweight in 56 days. That means an 85-pound Holstein should gain 1.5 pounds per day, and a 60-pound Jersey should gain about 1.1 pounds per day. These should be easily achievable goals. It’s my experience that well-managed Holsteins will gain 2 pounds per day and Jerseys 1.5 pounds per day.



There are several significant advantages of the auto-feeder system for feeding calves. One no longer needs to feed two large meals to get calves to consume sufficient nutrients to support the desired growth. In addition, research has shown that calves consuming smaller, more frequent meals are more efficient than those fed the same amount of energy and protein twice a day. Hopefully, more frequent meals will enable calves to achieve these growth goals earlier in life. If your calves are not achieving these goals, it’s time to determine why.

Preconditioning program

The maternity and colostrum program must be excellent to ensure calves are vigorous and have received maternal antibodies from the dam’s colostrum. Any deficiencies here will doom the auto-feeder program to failure. This means a clean calving environment and feeding the calf 4 liters of quality colostrum early in life (less than 6 hours of age). Quality colostrum is clean (less than 50,000 bacteria per milliliter) and has high levels of IgG (greater than 50 grams IgG per liter).

A higher incidence of scours or respiratory disease during the first week to 10 days is an indication of deficiencies in the maternity and colostrum program.

Most calves are housed and fed individually from 3 to 14 days old. With great maternity and colostrum programs, calves will have strong appetites early in life and can be moved to the auto-feeder group sooner.


Calves should be fed their morning feeding individually and then placed in the group pen and left alone. Take them to the feeder that night or early the next morning, and show them the nipple, and they will usually not need to be shown again. Their pen mates will show them the way. Don’t overtrain calves by taking them to the feeder for multiple days. They will be “trained” to wait for you to take them to the nipple.


The feeding plan

Calves should be offered at least 8 liters of milk or milk replacer containing at least 12.5 percent solids. During colder weather, the amount should probably be higher to account for increased needs to support maintenance function. (Note that the metric system is used by many automatic calf feeders as they are made in Europe. A quart equals 0.95 liters)

Don’t hesitate to offer higher levels of milk to younger calves. They are not forced to drink it, but it’s available if they have a good appetite. Remember, young calves will eat negligible amounts of calf starter the first three to four weeks of life regardless of the amount of milk they consume. They need the energy and protein provided by the liquid diet to support early gains and deposition of some body fat that can be available during cold spells or if the calf becomes ill and appetite declines. Some recommended feeding plans allow the calf to consume milk to appetite for the first four weeks of life and then begin limiting milk to encourage starter intake.

Cows’ milk contains approximately 13 percent solids. In most cases, this is the recommended setting for the auto-feeder when milk replacer is fed. However, many auto-feeders will specify how much powder is added to 1,000 milliliters of water. Therefore, 130 grams of powder added to 1,000 milliliters of water would actually result in 11.5 percent solids (130/1,130). In most cases, the powder should be added at a level of 150 to 160 grams to 1,000 milliliters of water.

If milk replacer is used, it should contain at least 24 percent crude protein (CP), but preferably more if more than 2 pounds of milk solids are offered per day. This is because lower levels of protein fed at high levels of intake don’t optimize lean tissue growth.

Some feeders permit using whole or waste milk or a blend of the milk and milk replacer. If milk is used, quality control is critical for a few reasons:

  • Milk contains more bacteria per milliliter to begin with, compared to milk replacer.

  • All milk, whether it’s saleable or unsaleable milk, should be pasteurized to minimize the risk of disease transfer.

  • Precautions must be taken to ensure the quality of milk is maintained. That means clean pasteurizers, receiving tanks, transfer lines, etc. Pasteurized milk must be cooled after pasteurization and prior to being warmed by the calf auto-feeder. Failure to maintain milk quality can mean you are feeding calves what is essentially bacterial soup.

  • Consider how much milk is necessary to supply the needs of the calf-feeding program. Typically, the supply of waste milk varies considerably from day to day, which means some saleable milk will need to be diverted to provide a predictable supply of milk for calves. Calves thrive on consistency, so switching back and forth between milk and milk replacer is not advisable, as calves won’t do well.


One of the greatest advantages of the auto-feeder is that it’s possible to step calves down gradually over 10 to 14 days rather than an abrupt drop to one daily milk or milk replacer feeding for one week. Some feeding plans suggest a drop in milk offered (to 6 to 8 liters per day) over four days at about 1 month of age to stimulate calf starter intake.



Sanitation is critically important. Make sure the cleaning functions of the auto-feeder are utilized. This usually means a circuit clean (like a clean-in-place system [CIP] in the milking parlor) at least once daily and an automated cleaning up to four times daily using the recommended detergent and settings. The feeding stall should also be scrubbed daily with a brush and hot, soapy water and sanitizer. Remember, this is where the calf is placing its head, and it can be a significant source of infectious agents. In addition, don’t forget to clean and sanitize the water troughs daily.


Since calves are usually offered a higher plane of nutrition, there should not be additional health problems. The DCHA Gold Standards recommend the incidence of respiratory disease should be less than 10 percent and scours less than 15 percent for pre-weaned calves. Occurrence of either disease prior to 10 days of age suggests the maternity area or colostrum management is suspect. Consult with the herd veterinarian to make sure the vaccination program is up to date. For problems after they are on the auto-feeder, the following areas should be considered:

  • Sanitation of the auto-feeder and auto-feeder stall

  • Inadequate management of pasteurized milk if it’s used

  • Inconsistent mixing of the milk replacer or use of a poor-quality milk replacer

  • Ventilation of the calf facility. Experts commonly recommend four air changes per hour in the winter and up to 40 changes per hour in the summer. This is the recommendation even for open-sided buildings.


It continues to be a challenge to find qualified labor on dairies in the U.S. When calf hutches are used, the environment for workers can be very undesirable in the heat of summer and in midwinter. In such cases, the goal of the worker is to see how quickly they can get finished. Under such systems, it’s a challenge to find and retain employees who have the skill and desire to feed calves in such labor-intensive systems.

Often, the farm may be spending as much for labor with an auto-feeder system, but they are paying fewer, more highly qualified individuals more money to spend more of their time caring for calves rather than washing buckets and bottles. The additional benefit should be retaining these employees rather than spending the manager’s time locating and training employees to do the tasks involving more menial labor.

Has your shift to the auto-feeder system been successful? It’s important to document that growth goals are being achieved by developing systems to weigh calves at birth and weaning. Additionally, this information should be recorded and summarized electronically along with health events to monitor success and to act in a timely fashion should problems be indicated.

Finally, you should have hired and retained a calf “manager” rather than a calf feeder and created conditions in which they can do their job effectively. Poor working conditions and/or lack of success are not conducive to keeping the right person on the dairy management team.  end mark

Robert James
  • Robert James

  • Calf Management Specialist
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