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Match autofeeder settings to your calf-feeding goals

Ann Hoskins for Progressive Dairy Published on 07 May 2021
Calf pens

To be successful with autofeeders, farms must determine the best settings and feeding program for their operation. Observing calf behavior can help further finesse the program to meet calf needs and farm goals.

Automatic calf feeders allow farms to set customized nutrition plans to match their farms’ goals to optimize health and growth of preweaned calves. Calf managers may control the total volume of milk a calf consumes in a day, how often it can drink milk and how much milk it can drink in a given feeding.

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Choosing your feeding plan

Many factors should be considered when choosing your feeding plan. All the feeder settings work together, and one change can affect the others. The settings we focus on the most are volume of milk, limitations (minimum and maximum) and concentration.

Autofeeders offer restricted and unrestricted feed plans. Restricted plans set the maximum allotted volume for the day, how often the calf can receive milk at the feeder and the maximum volume at each visit. Unrestricted plans are more free-flowing and generally allow calves an unlimited volume of milk in a day, but they still control the meal size at each feeding.

When developing these settings, machine indicators will let us know if they are working. Drinking speed, visits (rewarded and unrewarded) and milk volume consumed are at the top of the list.

When deciding on a feeding plan, think about when these calves will enter the feeder and what they are consuming prior to entry. Many calves enter the feeders in the first two weeks of life. You will want to be consistent in your feed source between the background feedings and feeder.

Whether you are feeding milk replacer, whole milk or a combination of the two, be consistent. Calves will train better and adjust to the feeder if you are feeding the same milk source between backgrounding and the autofeeder. It is ideal to keep the concentration the same throughout the feeding process. Calves do best when things are consistent.

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On a restricted program, the minimum limitation setting drives when a calf can first drink in the cycle of a day. Once a calf drinks for the first time in the cycle, the machine will calculate when she can drink again and how much milk volume she will be allowed to not exceed the maximum setting. The maximum setting limits how much a calf can drink at each visit. These two settings, in combination with the volume setting, will determine when the calf can drink again and how much.

When using a restricted program for calves of various ages on one feeder with multiple stations, adjust the feeding plan to make sure the youngest calves have more availability to drink. Setting your minimums lower for your youngest calves will result in more rewarded visits. This also helps with the training process.

Unrestricted programs are becoming more popular for the youngest groups, as these calves can drink more often, resulting in the most rewarded visits. Watching your rewarded and unrewarded visits, along with total milk consumption, can help you decide if an unrestricted program is the right fit.

Whether you are using a restricted or unrestricted program, closely monitor total milk consumption of this group. The youngest calves are the most vulnerable and need to consume enough volume to thrive and form consistent eating patterns. The goal is for the calves to find the feeder and, when they do, be rewarded and want to come back. We also want to make sure they consume enough to satisfy their hunger. If you notice unrewarded visits are high and/or milk consumption is low, the settings probably need to be adjusted.

As calves get older, setting the minimums higher will limit the number of times calves can drink, but these calves tend to drink more at a given visit. Raising the maximum will allow them a larger volume per feeding. The hope is: These calves will also consume more water and starter between milk feedings.

Weaning your autofeeder-fed calves

Calves starting on an unrestricted option generally continue through the middle phase of the milk feeding program. At some point, these calves will need to be put on a restricted plan to limit milk intake and encourage starter intake to start the weaning process. I suggest doing this in a step-down process. If calves are drinking high volumes of milk, a mid-level drop will help the highest consumers adjust to less volume. Continue this mid-level feeding for a week or so before starting the milk weaning ramp down. If the drop is too dramatic, you will likely see more bunching at the feeder, tail biting, cross sucking and other oral behaviors. Watching the calves will be a good indication if you have these settings right. In some cases, the step down may need to occur sooner in the milk phase, which means settings will need to be adjusted or days on milk should be increased to allow for more weaning time.

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When weaning calves, make sure they can still get enough rewarded visits while their milk program declines. Setting lower minimums will allow more visits as the total milk volume declines. In my experience, by the end of the milk program, many calves will start to wean themselves. Thus, it’s essential to provide constant availability of fresh feed and water.

Calf behavior can tell you a lot about the effectiveness of your feeding plan. In addition to the number of rewarded versus unrewarded visits, watch calf competition at the feeder, drinking behavior, total milk volume consumed and weaning behavior. These metrics can help you determine whether to adjust the various settings, which can be done at various points in the preweaning period. Understanding the computer settings is helpful, but you should also read the calves to decide if adjustments need to be made.

Regardless of the machine brand you use, make sure you understand how the settings interact with one another. I encourage you to work with your dealer to understand how these settings impact the calf feeding program.

Between the information the autofeeder provides and your calf observations, you have a tremendous amount of data to help make decisions that will optimize your calf program.  end mark

PHOTO: Calves in a barn. Photo by Mike Dixon.

Ann Hoskins
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