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Key considerations when setting up an auto-feeder calf program

Progressive Dairyman Field Editor Jenna Hurty-Person Published on 03 October 2018

During the 2018 Vita Plus Calf Summit, Jan Ziemerink, CEO at Foerster-Technik North America, shared his advice on how to properly manage calf auto-feeders and avoid some common mistakes. Auto-feeder systems face many challenges, including temperature, moisture (humidity), dust, colostrum genetics, environment and ventilation. Overcoming these challenges is important for raising healthy calves on an auto-feeder.

Preparing calves for success

First of all, Ziemerink said calves need to be born in a clean environment and be fed quality colostrum promptly. Sanitation is key here as no amount high-quality colostrum can make up for poor cleanliness or colostrum management.

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Ventilation is also key here. While it might sound counterintuitive, calves need fresh air in the barn and it needs to move, as stale air can lead to respiratory issues.

“Don’t worry about cold,” Ziemerink said. “Not one calf dies from the cold. The calf dies from draft.”

Along these same lines, calves need to be in clean, dry bedding. To check for this, producers should be able to kneel down in the calf pen without their knees becoming wet. If they aren’t able to do this, then the pen needs new bedding.

Finally, when setting calves up on an auto-feeder, water is key. In fact, Ziemerink said water is perhaps the most important component of the calf’s diet. With this in mind, he advised farms to test their water every six months. If the farm has calf health issues, he even suggested testing more often as water content can have a major impact on calf health. This is especially true when a farm is feeding milk replacer because the farm’s water is mixed into every meal the calves eat. Even if the water isn’t contaminated, hard or soft water can also impact the nutrition in that milk replacer. For example, high salt content in the water can cause nutrition issues, especially when a farm is feeding milk replacer.

Setting up the auto-feeder

Hose length from the mixing jar to the nipple is one issue Ziemerink said he commonly sees on farms. This hose should only be as long as is necessary and should not sag. The reason being when the calf finishes drinking, any residual milk should drain back to the feeder. If the hose has too much slack in it, this can’t happen, and milk may sit in the hose and cause problems. With this in mind, the nipple should be positioned high enough that the milk drains back to the feeder quickly.

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Nipple height is also important in terms of calf accessibility and drinking position. It is currently recommended that nipples be positioned 50 to 80 centimeters from the ground. However, Ziemerink prefers to see the nipple at or close to 50 centimeters because it is similar to the height of a cow’s udder.

Next, when feeding calves, correctly mixing the milk replacer and water is essential for consistency. Over time, the machines can become less accurate and must be calibrated to ensure accuracy. Because of this, Ziemerink said auto-feeders should be calibrated on a daily basis, unless the farm is having an issue with their feeding program related to the milk replacer mixing. If that is the case, then he suggested calibrating the machine twice a day.

Finally, Ziemerink said the feeder should be cleaned three to four times a day, and the nipple should be replaced one to two times per day. Producers should use a detergent that fits with their farm’s needs and water type. In other words, if a farm has hard or soft water, it may impact a detergent’s effectiveness at cleaning the feeder. The same goes for the nipples, which should be scrubbed with a brush and disinfected. However, Ziemerink said producers do need to keep in mind that these calves share a pen. While keeping the feeder itself clean is essential for calf health, it is also important to make sure the entire pen is clean as the auto-feeder is not the only way to transmit disease.

Designing the feeding plan

Calves should be introduced to the feeder between 1 and 7 days old. However, Ziemerink said they tend to do best when they are introduced between 3 and 7 days old. His reason is calves should be eager to eat when they start on the feeder because it helps them learn the feeder more quickly. In addition, once calves are introduced to the feeder, he suggested giving them some “tough love” by waiting several hours between bringing calves to the auto-feeder. In his experience, when he introduces calves to the auto-feeder and leaves them alone for 24 hours to figure it out, about 40 percent of the calves will figure it out in that time frame. If a calf hasn’t, then he suggested helping them again, but producers should be careful how often they help the calf to the auto-feeder; otherwise, the calf may not learn to visit the feeder on its own.

When developing the feeding program, Ziemerink recommended feeding 150 grams of milk replacer per liter of water, which is 13 percent solids or about the same as saleable milk. In addition, he suggested having the minimal milk allotment be lower than the total milk allotment. If these two numbers are the same, it can interfere with the calf’s ability to access milk. For example, if a farm sets up its auto-feeder so calves can eat 2 liters of milk replacer every two hours, but the minimum meal allotment is also 2 liters, then the calf can only eat in 2-liter quantities. In other words, if the calf only drinks 1 liter at its first feeding, it cannot go back an hour later to drink the other liter because it can only eat in 2-liter increments. This means the calf must wait the full two hours for its next meal. Instead, Ziemerink suggested keeping the minimum meal allotment low. That way calves are not limited due to meal size. For farms that feed supplements, Ziemerink also suggested splitting the supplement into at least two feedings every day to help with feeding consistency.

In addition, producers should choose an auto-feeder with priority settings. This is helpful if calves of different age groups are on the same feeder. With this setting, the farm can have the feeder prioritize the younger calves so they spend less time waiting for their turn to eat.

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Finally, auto-feeders track a plethora of data, which is useful, but Ziemerink said it is still important to walk pens and check calves without looking at the data. It isn’t until after walking the pen that he said producers should look at the data to confirm their suspicions. Once they have the data in front of them, they should go back and recheck calves with the lists. From there, they can determine the best course of treatment.  end mark

This article originally ran in the Vita Plus July 2, 2018, Starting Strong enewsletter.

Jenna Hurty-Person
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