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Research finds benefits to automated calf-feeding systems

Callie Curley Published on 24 August 2015

calf in a stall

A technology that has become a “norm” on European dairy operations, automated calf feeders have changed the system of feeding and observing calves in a multitude of ways. Seeing these results, U.S. dairymen can’t avoid the question: How could this technology better their operations and improve the health, growth and milk consumption of calves on their own farms?

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Marcia Endres, DVM, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota Department of Animal Science answered this very question in a May 19 DAIReXNET webinar on the eXtension website, an interactive learning environment which delivers research-based information from America’s land-grant university system.

According to Endres, a majority of the research conducted on managing automated calf-feeding systems has been completed in Europe, but work is being done in the U.S.

“There are many differences as to how we manage farms in the U.S. compared to Europe,” Endres said. “We need to investigate housing and management on U.S. farms that are utilizing these feeders, with the ultimate goal of developing the best management practices to optimize calf welfare and performance.”

While nearly 75 percent of U.S. dairy farms still house pre-weaned calves in individual hutches or pens (NAHMS, 2007), Endres noted there are potential advantages to be gained by implementing automated calf-feeding systems. These include social interaction between calves and potentially more space per calf. However, individual housing also has advantages such as no calf-to-calf contact, which eliminates the potential for the spread of disease between calves.*

Additional advantages include better-quality air, the capability of moving the feeder to new ground when needed and more convenient assessment of appetite, attitude and disease contraction. This is because the worker responsible for the calves is caring for them on an individual basis, allowing for more attention to be given to each calf as feeding rounds are made each day.

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According to a 2014 study by Dr. Sandra Godden, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, operator comfort and the intensity of labor are two of the top reasons producers consider transitioning to automated calf feeders, which eliminate the need to spend much longer amounts of time visiting each hutch and preparing and feeding calves on an individual basis.

Endres emphasized that, while this is a common preconception by producers about the automated feeding systems, it isn’t necessarily accurate.

“There is the potential for not less labor, but a different type of labor than might be completed when feeding calves on an individual system,” Endres said.

While it is true less time will be spent cleaning buckets and bottles and preparing milk replacer for calves, the element of work associated with caring for calves is not eliminated by the automated feeder.

Producers are still responsible for cleaning the tubes and other pieces of the feeding equipment regularly, changing pieces of the dispenser of the device daily and spending time entering data into the automated feeder software as to the specific amounts of milk each calf should be allowed to consume throughout the day – not to mention the responsibility of reviewing and responding to the data the automated feeder’s software provides.

In addition to these daily equipment management and data review procedures, Endres recommended that the systems be calibrated on a weekly basis. All of these management practices will likely lead producers to be much more satisfied with the work the equipment does accomplish.

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If feeding and caring for calves individually has worked so well for so long, many producers may wonder: Why take the risk and change a routine that hasn’t proven to be harmful to calves? Endres’ research shows that the answer may lie beyond what “works” and rest more comfortably on what may prove to raise more thriving and productive dairy heifers and cows.

“We’ve seen a recent trend in the upper Midwest of housing calves in groups,” she said. “Some of the advantages we can see in doing so are having more space per calf, so they can now play and express some natural behaviors that they could not express in the hutch system. They can also interact with other calves, and it is easier to feed larger amounts of milk and more frequent feedings.”

According to Endres, each calf is outfitted with an RFID tag so the feeder can recognize which calf is attempting to eat. The system can then determine how much milk to allow the calf to consume based on the data entered into the software by the dairy producer.

The software is capable of providing a wide array of information on each calf, from the number of times she visits the feeder each day and how many of those visits are rewarded (meaning the calf was entitled to a meal and therefore received it) to how many are unrewarded because the calf was not entitled to a meal, as well as drinking speed. These factors also help producers learn more about each calf and her habits, as well as detect potential signs of disease.

Of the manufacturers currently in the market with automated calf-feeding systems, Lely, DeLaval, Urban and GEA Farm Technologies, as well as Holm & Laue, are solid starting points for producers interested in exploring the possibility of implementing automated calf-feeding systems on their operations. Endres noted that the average cost of a system is $20,000, but this is a figure that changes depending on the manufacturer and the capabilities of the unit.

While the feeder itself may prove to be a substantial investment, it may not require an entirely new facility in order to work efficiently. In the 38 dairy farms Endres and her team studied for about a year-and-a-half across the Wisconsin and Minnesota area, 60 percent retrofitted an existing structure, such as a tiestall barn or hog facility, into pens for calf groups and automated feeders. The other 40 percent elected to build an entirely new structure specifically for the feeders.

For producers who travel down the automated calf-feeder path of management, Endres suggested maintaining excellent colostrum management, eliminating drafts and improving ventilation in their group calf facilities, as well as providing clean, 40-square-feet-per-calf, dry, abundant bedding in the pens.

Calves should have free-choice access to water and high-quality starter pellet in the pen. To top it all, however, she emphasized the importance of careful, frequent observation of calves to detect illness early.

“There is much that you can rely on the software to provide,” Endres said. “But nothing replaces a human being observing the animals and detecting that [one] may be sick.” PD

*UPDATE: This paragraph has been corrected from its original version to accurately identify the advantages of individual calf housing as stated by the presenter.

Callie Curley is a communications student at Penn State University – Berks campus.

PHOTO: Photo by Mike Dixon.

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