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Maximizing calf health, performance in autofeeder systems

Ann Hoskins Published on 24 August 2015

Automatic calf feeding has become very popular in the U.S. in the past few years. The technology offers plenty of opportunities but also requires a refocus on management.

The decision of whether autofeeders fit your calf program needs to be made only after careful consideration of how the opportunities and challenges will play out on your operation.

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Newborn calf care

Optimal calf care starts at day one. The goal of any newborn calf program should be to maximize passive immunity and minimize ingestion of pathogens from the environment. Group housing can reveal weaknesses in newborn calf care programs that otherwise wouldn’t be a problem if a calf was housed individually. All newborn calf care practices must be followed to maximize success.

Keeping calving pens clean and dry will reduce contact and the spread of disease. Focusing on colostrum management – quality, quantity, quickness of harvest and feeding, and cleanliness – will help ensure passive transfer.

Navels must be dipped immediately, preferably with 7 percent tincture of iodine. Quickly move calves to a clean, dry environment – whether it’s a starting pen in the autofeeding facility or a clean hutch – for the first few days.

Backgrounding

Producers often question how to introduce the calf to the feeder. Is it best to start at day one or wait until day 14 or any other combination in between? Animal numbers and flow will often dictate which works best for your operation.

In many cases, it’s preferable to background (raise calves in individual stalls for the first few days) prior to placing calves in group pens. Doing so, calf raisers are able to determine whether calves are ready to compete or need extra time.

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Reasons to hold them back may include slow to drink, not drinking enough (minimum of 4 liters), poor passive transfer, lethargic, etc. If calves are not aggressively eating in an individual situation, they will struggle once they are in a group setting.

If calves go to group pens right away, you will likely need to keep the stocking density lower (no more than 10 calves). This gives them a chance to learn the system without a lot of competition from other calves. It is also important to keep the age gap between 10 and 14 days. Watch daily consumption to make sure calves are eating a minimum of 4 liters per day.

Designing feeding programs

Many autofeeder users are taking their calf nutrition programs to new levels. Producers feed anywhere from the conventional 1.25 pounds of milk replacer powder to upward of 3 pounds per day. Pasteurized milk feedings range from 2 to 3 gallons per day.

Calves can have very erratic eating patterns with autofeeders, especially in the first few weeks on large volumes of milk. A calf may consume the full amount one day and barely eat the next. Playing with the ramp-up and total volume fed can help to minimize this variability.

Factors that can influence early performance include newborn care, ability to nest, stocking density, availability of fresh water and starter quality. Benchmark your animals’ growth and performance by weighing and tracking health events. This gives you a way to judge whether changes to your nutrition program are effective.

The real advantage of autofeeders is the increased number of feedings per day. It can vary between farms, but four to six smaller feedings in a 24-hour period is the most common. When deciding how many feedings to offer per day, consider how many calves need to eat at a feeding station and whether the machine can keep up with that pace. Most feeders can handle 25 to 50 calves. One feeding station with two nipples can feed up to 50 calves per day.

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Even if the feeder can feed 50 calves, can the facility handle that many? In an ideal situation, a calf will have 30 to 35 square feet of resting space per animal. Air quality is also important. Many consultants are trained to evaluate your facility and help you make the needed adjustments.

Calves thrive on consistency, and autofeeders offer that. The machine is designed to mix the same amount of water and powder in each feeding at a consistent temperature. If choosing a milk replacer, look for one that has good flow from the hopper and allows for good mixing. This will help to ensure consistency.

Calibrate the machine regularly to check the density of the powder and make sure it has not changed. Milk replacer powder density can vary and should be monitored regularly. Some machines now offer auto-calibration. That does not take you off the hook. All machines should be checked regularly for consistency in water and water temperatures, dry feed, medications and cleaning solutions.

Monitoring calf health

How you monitor calf health will change when you switch to autofeeders. We pick up most of our calf health cues when we observe them during feedings. With autofeeders, you will need to retrain your monitoring skills. You now will need to spend time visually looking at the pen of calves for any signs of distress.

The machine can also help. Most of these units have detailed monitoring systems that will let you know when milk consumption is down, visits to the machine have decreased, feeding durations are slower, etc.

The combination of visually looking at the calves and data should help guide you to the calf in distress. Responding quickly to a calf in distress is key, especially in group housing.

Addressing challenges

That leads us to some of the challenges. Grouping calves has some social advantages, but it can also lead to the quick spread of pathogens throughout the whole group. Early diagnosis is very important. Work very closely with your veterinarian to make sure your vaccination protocol is up-to-date and followed. Prevention and close monitoring will help lead to your success.

Computer technology may also come with a learning curve. The machines provide a lot of monitoring tools and data, but you must be able to retrieve and apply it to your program. Not only can this data help you find the calf in distress, but it can also help you save pennies or improve calf performance. Your local equipment dealer, nutritionist or calf specialist will be able to help you decipher the programs and information.

Machine maintenance will also play a big role in your success. You are now in the quality control business and, with that, you must make sure the machine is cleaning properly. Many of these machines clean at a much lower temperature than we traditionally use. The right chemicals at the right rate are pertinent to cleaning effectiveness.

Work with your dealer or calf specialist to develop a cleaning and maintenance checklist. Items may include timing of circuit cleans, nipple cleaning, hose changing, machine calibration, etc. The nipple must be removed two to three times daily for cleaning along with running circuit cleans on a regular basis. Take bacteria samples regularly as a backup check to make sure the machine is cleaning properly.

Autofeeding has become a widely accepted practice, offering many potential benefits to calf programs. But making the most of the technology requires careful management and a lot of learning. Reach out to key people who can help you achieve your goals and reach for the next step. PD

Click here to see a three-part video series for even more info.

Ann Hoskins
  • Ann Hoskins

  • Calf Products Coordinator
  • Vita Plus Corp.
  • Email Ann Hoskins

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