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Michigan heifer facility finds success with automated feeders

Sara Kitchen Published on 06 May 2014
John Feldpausch gives an overview of the calf-raising operation during GEA’s 2013 Innovation Dairy Tour.

John and Debbie Feldpausch of Westphalia, Michigan, manage and operate a progressive calf-raising facility using some of the newest technology in the business. Their success has been due to their years of experience and dedication to healthy calves.

Sonrise Farm is currently home to more than 500 wet calves housed in individual and group housing. The couple started in the calf-raising business by purchasing a dairy with the intent of raising beef calves. The owners of the 1,000-cow facility where Debbie had previously been calf manager asked her to raise calves for them.

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In 2010, after installing automated calf feeders, they also began raising the majority of the calves born at a nearby 6,500-cow dairy. The Feldpauschs recently began utilizing a UV purifier on waste milk from the 6,500-cow dairy.

Their success begins with their detailed attention off the farm at the time of birth. Before calves are transferred to Sonrise Farm for raising, the Feldpauschs require all farms provide calves with 1 gallon of colostrum. In order to ensure the health of the calf and its future growth and development, blood is drawn on each calf by day 3 to test total protein levels.

Once arriving at Sonrise, calves are housed in individual calf pens for 14 days. This 14-day period is a major disease prevention management stage for Sonrise. The time slot allows the Feldpauschs ample opportunity to detect and treat any illness, and the isolation prevents calves from spreading disease.

After this 14-day stage of isolation, they are transferred to group housing where they are separated by age. From day 15 to 56, calves are fed using the automated calf feeders.

John explains, “It typically takes three feedings for the calves to catch on. If they do not adapt in that amount of time, we pull them out and feed individually. This happens about one in 1,000 calves.”

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The autofeeders’ software system provides Sonrise with information used to monitor calf health. The number of times calves visit the feeders and the amount of milk they consume are both recorded in the system using the RFID tag-reading system.

A UV purifier recently replaced a heat pasteurizer at Son Rise Farm. After a side-by-side comparison of the milk, the Feldpauschs believe the UV milk is a better quality product for their calves.

The calves are fed milk at high consumption rates through the autofeeders until they reach the maximum consumption of 10 liters per day.

Around this checkpoint, the Feldpauschs typically assess the need to wean the calf and the system limits their consumption. Calves are weaned in a matter of 14 days as their consumption limit gradually decreases from 10 liters to 3 liters.

The milk is pumped from the UV purifier to sanitized bulk tanks located at each auto feeder. The pasteurized milk is stored at 38-40ºF. As calves approach the feeding station, the RFID tag is scanned, and the pasteurized milk is warmed to 105ºFfor each individual feeding.

Prior to the UV pasteurizer, the couple had been using a heat pasteurizer. Through their own side-by-side comparison test, they found the UV did a better job of purifying the waste milk from their clients’ herds. They believe that the quality milk fed keeps the calves from sucking on one another.

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John and Debbie explain, “There is virtually no sucking in the group setting. As long as we feed them enough, they’re completely satisfied.” The Feldpauschs have very few complaints about the autofeeders and the UV purifier.

They noted that their labor is significantly reduced because of the automated system. If they identify a need to treat calves for coccidiosis or scours, it can easily be done via the autofeeders.

Another positive associated with the high consumption rate feeding is the weight gain seen in the calves. Their current production goal is 2 pounds of ADG and they are currently at 1.64 pounds, which is well above the national average. In order to track calf performance, every calf is weighed individually on day 1 and again on day 56. When calves leave the farm at day 120, a group exit weight is recorded.

John and Debbie state that both wean and exit weights far exceed the Gold Standards of the industry, largely due to the implementation of modern technology.

"We strongly feel that the use of the auto feeder is only for those who believe in a 'full potential' program," Debbie says. "Auto feeders in our application have performed poorly when trying to achieve sub-standard performance goals. Individual pens are a much better option for those willing to accept the conventional calf rearing performance standards."

While the autofeeders require less labor, they require more management.

John explains, “We walk through the pens a few times each day to make sure all of the calves are doing well and then check the computer system to be sure all calves are consuming the levels they need.

Feldpausch says it typically takes three feedings for a calf to catch on to the automated feeders.

If there are any problems, we are able to pull calves out and give them individual attention.” The lines and nipples on the system are replaced every two weeks and the machine sanitizes the inner workings of the equipment four times per day.

Sonrise Farm’s success is a true testament to their management style and detailed attention to calf care. As the Feldpauschs talk about their operation, you can hear the genuine excitement in their voice.

John explains, “Nothing excites me more than a nice group of calves.” The Feldpauschs understand that those first couple months of a calf’s life will have an everlasting effect on their future performance.

He says, “The autofeeders allow our calves to consume as much as they need. This pays off when the heifer turns into a cow. Autofeeders have been the best way for us to provide the nutrients the calves need.

It’s very hard to meet the nutrient demand and the goals of the dairy in individual pens. We’ve found this to be true even when feeding a gallon of whole milk two times per day in individual pens. With autofeeders, calves can drink as much as they need, just as nature intended.” PD

Sara Kitchen is a Penn State student and a freelance writer based in State College, Pennsylvania.

PHOTOS
TOP: John Feldpausch gives an overview of the calf-raising operation during GEA’s 2013 Innovation Dairy Tour.

MIDDLE: A UV purifier recently replaced a heat pasteurizer at Sonrise Farm. After a side-by-side comparison of the milk, the Feldpauschs believe the UV milk is a better quality product for their calves.

BOTTOM: Feldpausch says it typically takes three feedings for a calf to catch on to the automated feeders. Photos courtesy GEA Farm Technologies.

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