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Roundtable on automatic calf feeding: What we still need to know

PD Editor Emily Caldwell Published on 29 August 2012

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Progressive Dairyman recently reached out to several industry researchers to provide up-to-date information about automatic calf feeding. Roundtable participants include:



  • Tom Earleywine, technical services director for Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products, who recently gave a presentation on automatic calf feeding at the Mid-Atlantic Nutrition Conference
  • Mike Van Amburgh, associate professor of animal science at Cornell University, where the dairy research herd utilizes an automatic calf feeder
  • Miriam Weber Nielsen, professor of dairy management and physiology at Michigan State University, who provided tips for raising calves with automatic feeders at the Tri-State Dairy Nutrition Conference


This online article features responses from Bob James, Virginia Tech professor. James's responses are denoted with the symbol:

As he mentions in his responses, James recently gave a presentation at ADSA about sanitation in automatic calf feeders and the work that still needs to be done.


How do you think automatic calf feeders have changed the way producers develop their calf-rearing programs?


EARLEYWINE: Automatic calf feeding has given producers another option to feed calves as they should be getting fed. We’re discovering that calves should be getting fed more than twice a day and, already, 14 percent of calf growers are feeding at least three times a day, with another 20 to 25 percent considering that change.

Automatic calf feeding also provides calves with a chance to get acclimated to group housing, although that comes with its own challenges.

JAMES: We conducted a survey with farms using autofeeders, and we identified four groups of people with varying reasons for using the technology.

The first group was the people who always want the latest technology. These producers had purchased feeders more than two years ago and have made technological advancements in other areas on the dairy.

The second group was producers who were just overwhelmed with calves and had exceeded housing facilities. They were still feeding some calves individually but also used the autofeeders as an alternative feeding method.

A third group was producers who needed a refocus of labor. They wanted to shift the time demand from preparing and feeding milk to the sanitation and well-being of calves.


The last group was producers who were really interested in the machines and what they could do nutritionally. They wanted to manipulate the feeding rates.

VAN AMBURGH: Automatic calf feeding has allowed dairy producers to redirect their management efforts. Instead of spending time washing out bottles or buckets, producers can take advantage of the management data from the machines, such as rate of consumption and number of visits. This data has also allowed producers to do benchmarking – they can set standards for “normal” behavior. If a calf isn’t eating as much as it should, it might be a sign of illness.

WEBER NIELSEN: Automatic feeders allow producers to feed more milk to calves in a less labor-intensive manner. Younger calves can consume smaller, more frequent meals with higher milk intake than traditional individual feeding. Also producers can focus more time on management of the calves and less on laborious tasks of feeding and cleaning.


What’s your number one piece of advice for producers looking at the technology?

Make sure to provide adequate nutrition and enough space to calves. In our research, we’ve found that you can’t split a small amount of nutrition over several feedings and expect proper growth.

Because calves have more opportunity to come in contact via each other and the nipple of the feeder, it’s important to provide enough space in group housing. We recommend 35 to 40 square feet per calf. This will help to reduce the amount of opportunities for disease transfer. Adequate spacing also provides better ventilation and bedding, which help to reduce respiratory disease.

JAMES : It’s all about service and training. Identify a dealer who is going to provide the training and installation support needed for a decision like this. I’ve seen some dealers who are becoming overwhelmed with the amount of technology available to producers, especially with milking equipment, and a calf feeder may not be at the top of their list.

VAN AMBURGH: Don’t forget you have to manage the calves. These machines provide a lot of labor savings, but it’s vitally important to have all of the other protocols in place like dry cow vaccinations and colostrum delivery. I’d also recommend producers have a backup plan for calves in case of a disease outbreak.

Having an all-in, all-out style of calf program with these feeders is the ideal approach because it allows for some downtime – but many cannot afford that approach. So having an alternative option for housing in the event of an outbreak or just some downtime is important.

WEBER NIELSEN: Excellent calf management is required to benefit from use of automated feeders and group housing. Be sure the technology is right for your facilities and management.


What has your recent research work in this subject area shown?

A major discovery we had is that the less nutrition we provided at the feeder, the longer time the calves spent at the feeder, trying to get more milk. Our most current project is comparing an automatic calf-feeding program to a free-choice acidified milk program.

JAMES: We’ve been looking at understanding the assets and liabilities of the machine. We’ve determined it comes down to the people involved, and you really need to address two factors in the manager.

The first is being able to have a good eye for calves and can detect illnesses not indicated by the feeder. You also need someone who understands the mechanics of the system and grasps how to adjust feeding plans. In other words, look at the calves first, then delve into the data.

VAN AMBURGH: From a management perspective, we’ve learned that not all calves behave the same way. Some calves eat 3 or 4 gallons a day, but some calves are only at 6 quarts a day. And that’s OK. We’ve learned that a low intake isn’t necessarily an indication of sickness because not every calf is going to eat the same volume.

We also learned we need to watch calf behavior. We saw older, bigger calves going into the feeder and pushing out the younger calves. So we had to adjust the gates to make sure the younger, smaller calves were able to eat without getting pushed away. That’s something we wouldn’t have noticed unless we stood at the pen and observed calves.

Our research continues to focus on enhancing pre-weaning growth and factors related to that, and the machines are excellent tools for providing nutrients and feedback about feeding behavior and feed intake.

WEBER NIELSEN: We learned that although calves fed more milk did not produce significantly more milk in first lactation, a lower age at first calving and a trend toward higher milk production yielded no difference in total returns in comparison with traditional feeding rates. Producers can consider other farm-specific factors in deciding on a feeding program.


What have been challenges you’ve seen in operations with automatic calf feeders?

EARLEYWINE: The equipment needs to be better managed. The feeders need to be calibrated at least weekly, but producers should also be double-checking by measuring water temperatures and analyzing mixed samples for solids and bacteria levels.

We’ve also noticed that these feeders aren’t being cleaned properly and often enough. Some feeders have clean-in-place systems in them, which is great, but producers need to be aware some parts of the feeder still need to be manually cleaned.

JAMES : I presented an abstract at the recent ADSA meeting about the level of sanitation in these autofeeders. The microbial growth is really high, but we have not yet looked at the kinds of bacteria growing.

Companies have made some progress on that front. There are some that flush out the entire system once a day.

It’s important for producers to be testing the quality and temperature of the milk and to be calibrating the concentration of the powder.

The biggest challenge is with the people who think they can buy this equipment and walk away. The success of the machine comes down to the people who can provide adequate observation of the calves and the equipment.

VAN AMBURGH: Determining the number of calves per feeder, how much room per group of calves and how not to overcrowd are the main factors in making feeders work effectively. If you don’t understand those dynamics, you’re going to have problems.

The other challenge has been some disease transmission. We had a rotavirus in the herd and needed to change our dry cow vaccination program to get it under control. During that period we had to move calves out since they were cross-contaminating the nipple and spreading the disease.

Also, producers here in New York worry about the cold weather and think they need to keep the space tight to keep calves warm – but we’ve seen that air flow is key. We make sure we deep-bed with straw and we put whole bales of straw in the pen for calves to huddle against.

WEBER NIELSEN: There is a learning curve in setting a schedule for maintenance and cleaning of the automatic feeders and lines. Producers need to determine the right sanitation program for their feeder.

One producer observed less scours when milk replacer was diluted with more water to a concentration similar to whole milk.

Adequate ventilation is important to minimize respiratory illnesses, and each facility has its own challenges. If calves are provided sufficient space, they will move to the areas of the pen that are most comfortable for the current weather.


What have been the most noticeable improvements in an operation that installed automatic calf feeders?

EARLEYWINE: I think the biggest improvement we’ve seen is labor efficiency. The feeder isn’t something you can just set and walk away from, but it does provide an opportunity to focus on other management aspects of raising replacements, like bedding and proper ventilation. These feeders are also a great way to provide higher-level nutrition.

JAMES : We’re seeing phenomenal irregularity in operations that measure cups of powder to liquid in five-gallon buckets. These feeders are an opportunity to provide the consistency the calf needs. And by feeding four or five times a day, we’re stressing the calf a lot less.

VAN AMBURGH: Since using the automatic feeder, our calves are quite a bit heavier than we were used to, and it’s because we’re able to get them to grow the way “Mom” intended. We’re measuring our return on investment by cost per pound of gain of growth. With the feeder, calves are growing efficiently and effectively.

WEBER NIELSEN: Calves are noticeably larger by weaning and labor requirements were lower with more flexibility. Because calves need to be vigorous eaters before moving into group housing, use of the feeders also stimulated improvements in colostrum management and in management of newborn calves.


What questions still need to be answered related to automatic calf feeders?

I think we still need to discover the best way to keep these feeders as clean as possible. I know of one feeder that sanitizes the nipples in between each feeding, but I think producers look at that like, “Why is it necessary when they’re already housed together?” We’ve found that the shared nipple is a major source of disease transfer.

The other area we’re still trying to discover is the optimal level of nutrition to provide. We did a study where the calves were able to drink as much as they wanted at the feeder, and they had a higher rate of gain compared to calves that were given a specific amount. But is that the most efficient way to feed? I’m not sure we have the answer to that yet.

JAMES: Research still needs to be done as far as the cost of operation and the long-term influence of these feeders. When buying any piece of equipment, you want to know the maintenance and operating expense. In many cases, producers build a whole new facility. How do you justify those investments?

I also think we need to look at the long-term life of the calf. What impact does a particular feeding program have down the line when she’s at first lactation? And we can even start answering some animal welfare questions. We know these calves are less stressed during weaning and because they’re already used to the group setting. I think those things would be interesting to consumers.

VAN AMBURGH: The rest of the world has been using this technology a lot longer than the U.S. has. In parts of Europe, about 30 to 40 percent of farms have automatic calf feeders, and Japan was an early adopter of the technology.

So it’s really a matter of understanding the goals of the machine and figuring out how to adapt it to U.S. calf operations. I think we’re still determining the optimum number of calves per machine and the most efficient feeding strategies, particularly when it comes to incorporating starter grain and weaning age. Movement to group housing and the management of that is still quite new to U.S. producers and will require some further discussion.

WEBER NIELSEN: Documenting the effect of use of automatic feeders on labor needs would be useful for producers considering the technology. Also, I think we are still working to understand the most efficient feeding program for growing calves and transitioning them to starter grain. PD