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Hands-on management is key for transitioning to robotic technologies, Part 2

Holly Harper Published on 20 November 2013

Editor's Note: This is the second of two articles on the Precision Dairy Technology Forum hosted by Penn State University. Click here to read the first article.

Group calf housing is back
Dr. Jud Heinrichs, a Penn State University professor of dairy science, and Jared Yousey a DeLaval herd management specialist for the northeast region, both spoke about the strengths and challenges of group calf housing and automatic calf feeding systems during the Precision Dairy Technology Forum hosted by Penn State University Extension in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 18.



Both presentations held the same basic main theme: proper hands-on management of an automatic feeding system in a group-housed environment can yield excellent results.

“You can't rely on the computer,” said Heinrichs. “Dairy producers with these systems don't just look at the printout. They still spend time watching their calves; they know their calves. They can still get an indication of the health of each calf."

While automatic calf feeding systems will eliminate the one-on-one “drudgery” of feeding individual calves and cleaning individual pens, it doesn’t mean that calves will raise themselves.

According to Yousey’s presentation, a dairy with an automatic calf feeder still must have a calf manager, treat sick calves, maintain the bedding, load the machine, feed colostrum, and tend to the cows every day.

So, why invest in group calf housing and an automatic feeding system if it still requires a lot of hands-on work?


Both Dr. Heinrichs and Yousey argue that is better for the calf’s health and can potentially also be good for the dairy’s long-term investment.

With an automatic calf feeding system “you've got a group-housed calf, but you're feeding her on an individual basis,” said Heinrichs. “That's where it all comes back together, using the technology to automate some processes, but giving the calf individual care.”

Yousey pointed out that automated feeding systems raise a calf that is more profitable as well as healthier – both physically and socially.

Benefits to automatic calf feeding systems

  • The precision nature of the programmable technology allows each calf to be fed according to her own program, which can regulate portion control, feed quantity and type, weaning timeframe, medications and electrolytes needed.
  • Other customizable settings include changing feed to compensate for ambient temperature changes or including a scale to measure calf weight, which can then trigger a change in feed or weaning schedule, respectively.
  • Like a free-stall barn with robotic milking machines, the calf can come and go to the feeder as she pleases to “drink to her potential,” said Yousey. Yousey’s research indicated that a cow that is fed through a system of this type can generate about $300 more revenue in her first lactation because of the better overall nourishment and environment.
  • Socially, the group-housed calf is more calm and inquisitive as the confinement of a pen is eliminated and a social hierarchy is established early, according to Yousey.
  • The automatic feeding system has diagnostic tools that can help detect a sick calf by monitoring drinking speed, a key marker that warns of a drop in consumption.

Overall, a group housing scenario with an automatic feeding system can provide custom settings for individual calf care as well as the social and environmental support a calf needs in the first weeks and months of life, if properly managed and built.

Both Yousey and Heinrichs offered similar views on the basic requirements of the group housing facility and system.


Requirements for the group-housed calf

  • Individual housing for the first 5 to 7 days
  • Move to group housing in as close as possible age group clusters
  • Provide clean, dry and draft-free housing
  • Ensure adequate clean, dry bedding
  • Ensure space has at least 30 to 60 square-feet per calf
  • Provide personal access to milk
  • Provide free choice grain
  • Provide free choice, clean water
  • Have no more than 25 calves per nipple
  • Provide excellent ventilation

Things to consider for automatic calf feeding systems

  • The economics of the system might not work for your farm. Be sure to do appropriate research to determine whether it will work for you.
  • You still need a hands-on manager with the skills to both work with the automatic feeding system – bacterial testing, maintenance, loading the machine, etc. – and manage the calves actively through personal calf care and monitoring.
  • If you cannot provide close-in age groups and have too much variability, the system might not be the best for the calves in the groups. PD

Holly Harper is marketing director at Advanced Comfort Technology Inc. You can reach her by email.