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Roundtable: Which automatic calf feeder is best for you?

PD Editor Emily Caldwell Published on 19 September 2012

Automatic calf-feeder

In the September 1 issue of Progressive Dairyman, we reached out to calf researchers and asked them to share their thoughts on the future of automatic calf feeding.



For this issue, we’ve invited company representatives to talk about their automatic calf feeding offerings.

Responses are from:

  • Jim Fisher, equipment sales, GEA Farm Technologies
  • Tom Olsen, national sales manager of Calf Star, LLC , the North American distributor for Holm & Laue calf feeding systems
  • Rick Robbins, marketing manager of capital goods, DeLaval
  • Jerome Rombouts, Rombouts Ag Service , distributor, importer of Urban Feeding Technology for North America
  • Dan Schreiner, farm management consultant, Lely


Most industry contacts state that the inner workings of these machines, regardless of the company, are inherently the same. What makes your system unique?

FISHER: The system from Förster-Technik is really the worldwide leader in automatic calf feeding. That’s why we’re all using it. The level we equip the feeder is what sets us apart.


We include a detergent pump, standard, so that the feeder is properly set up for automatic cleaning.We also provide automatic calibration, so that the unit continually measures the proper amount of milk replacer.

Another area that makes us unique is our dealer support. Each dealer has to be certified in installation and training before they can sell the equipment.

OLSEN : Of the many features, these three unique features come to mind:

  • Each HL 100 system is modular, allowing expansion as you grow or needs change. As calves are added, you add additional nipple units (up to four per mixing station, approximately 25 calves per nipple).
  • Each ration is mixed as the calf is drinking, approximately 0.5 liters per mix. This assures warm fresh milk and/or milk replacer is available at the teat.
  • Each nipple unit has a small robust multi-purpose peristaltic pump, allowing flexible mounting distances from the mixing station (up to 20 feet away); pre-prime the milk hose to within 10 inches of nipple, easing the training of calves; and, pull the wash and rinse water through the milk hose, assuring cleanliness.

ROBBINS: There are some slight differences in the feeders. For example, our feeder offers a “carryover” feeding feature which allows the calves to continue being fed after midnight. More than the product itself, we are working closely with dairy producers before and after the sale to help them with the best management practices they need to be successful with intensive group calf feeding.

ROMBOUTS: Our system has a closed milk loop from the machine to the drink station, so the calves always have warm milk. It also has a fully automatic washing system, so getting it cleaned is a simple process. Also, producers can disinfect the nipple after each feeding.

SCHREINER: What makes us unique is that we’ve teamed up with Grober Nutrition in Canada, and they have more than 20 years of experience with group housing and automatic feeders. Our U.S. dealers can sell milk replacer specifically designed for use in feeders, to more closely match what calves would get naturally.


The milk powder dispenser on the machine, along with our specially designed feed additives, also sets us apart. Producers only have to calibrate the system once for it to dispense any medications or additives that need to be added to the powder. Then producers can switch between them easily and only use them when needed.


What data or reports does your automatic calf feeder provide for producers? What future plans do you have in that area?

FISHER: The feeder comes with basic software that focuses on feeding program protocols. Producers may choose to add on management software that would focus on other areas of a calf program. This software can also be integrated with our herd and parlor management software. That enables producers to follow a calf all the way through her life.

OLSEN : Our system is designed around two 12-hour cycles, creating an alarm list twice-daily. At the touch of a button, you will be alerted to calves that are off on feed consumption, down on weight or not eating their concentrate (depending on features ordered). Also, drinking times can be called up to determine if calves are becoming ill. External PC connection is available if you additional notes and data stored.

For the future, we are working on many aspects of data gathered to create a consolidated report that clearly provides the information to make management decisions. However, the human eye will never be replaced for walking through the calves, looking for tell-tale signs of sickness.

ROBBINS: Our automatic calf feeder allows you to track how much you’ve fed each calf. When that calf becomes a cow, you can attach that data to her performance in milking. Then you can use the history to help you optimize your calf feeding program for future milk yield. We think there is great potential to make direct connections from the automatic feeding system to our herd management systems.

ROMBOUTS: The system comes standard with a basic computer to control feed variables. It can also be linked to a PC to track and store additional data. It’s really up to the producer to determine if and how they want to use that feature.

SCHREINER: Producers can choose to use the software that comes standard with the calf feeder or they can use a module of our robot management software, which is managing the rest of the herd for our milking robot customers. We’re always looking at ways to analyze this data.

A large portion of my job is gathering feedback from producers and taking that back to our engineers. I find out what they like and don’t like about the system so we can continue to try to stay ahead of the curve.


What future plans do you have for your automatic calf feeder? What excites you most about automatic calf feeding?

FISHER: What excites me is the quality of calves these feeders are able to produce. They grow so much better and producers end up with a better animal. To me, that’s the most important thing because that’s the future of the herd. We’re beginning to understand the need to feed these calves better when they’re younger. These feeders enable you to do that.

OLSEN : We intend on working closely with users, industry experts and designers to assure that our products offer a solid low maintenance, value-added package for the calf raiser.

I never tire of standing outside the pen watching young calves jumping and running around in a natural group environment, building that strong frame that will carry them well through their lactations. And knowing that each calf is individually fed and monitored is truly amazing.

ROBBINS: We plan to continue to look at ways to expand our product and service offerings. We want to make sure we’re emphasizing the proper use and management practices with these feeders. I think we’re just scratching the surface of the potential for what dairy farmers can do with their calf programs.

These feeders have become the standard in many places throughout Europe. The process is really just beginning here in the U.S. as producers are realizing the huge potential health and milking benefits of intensive feeding in the first 60 days of the calf’s life.

ROMBOUTS: The newest model is able to handle three drink stations. The biggest advantage there is that the calves can drink at the same time; they don’t have to wait for each other. And it still controls the feeding intake. As of October 2012, the machines will be able to read identification systems.

SCHREINER: Even though about two-thirds of our automatic feeder users don’t use a robot on their operation, we see a lot of similarities in the philosophy behind this and automated milking. The feeders prepare calves to be well socialized with the machine and with herdmates. It’s all about group interaction and encouraging these animals to display their natural behavior which allow them to grow to their full potential.


What advice do you have for producers exploring the technology?

FISHER: Keep in mind that feeders aren’t a fix for bad practices. They help producers get feed into the calves. The rest is up to producers as managers.

I also tell our dealers that the two most important people for producers to bring on board are the farm’s nutritionist and a barn design consultant who’s very knowledgeable about ventilation. Producers need someone on their team who understands ventilation is about exchanging air, not moving air.

These feeders can work in a remodeled barn, but it takes a lot of planning. Without proper ventilation, an automated feeding system can’t perform as well as it should.

OLSEN : My advice to producers looking at this technology is not to be afraid of the technology, but to embrace it by surrounding yourself with industry experts (ventilation, building design, veterinarian(s) value added equipment dealers). This, along with talking to as many calf raisers as possible, will assure that you will have a head start on raising solid, healthy calves.

ROBBINS: We aim to make dairy producers successful, so we really encourage them to look at all the surrounding aspects of calf management before purchasing an automatic feeder. Have they considered barn design?

Do they know the number of calves they should have per pen? Have they figured out the ventilation and bedding for group housing? These are all questions that should be answered ahead of time since successful group feeding requires very different management than traditional calf rearing.

SCHREINER: Visit other operations with feeders in place. We encourage potential customers to do their homework. We set them up with producers who have feeders and are managing them really well along with producers who had a few hiccups along the way. The bottom line is that these feeders won’t work well if you don’t have the proper ventilation, housing and management for the calves. PD

Autofeeders: Are they here to stay?

At the Vita Plus Calf Summit held in Green Bay, Wisconsin, June 20-21, Calf Products Coordinator Ann Hoskins led a breakout session titled, “Autofeeders: Are they here to stay?”

In the session, Hoskins encouraged producer discussion, asking questions of those who had installed automatic feeder systems. Some advantages calf growers pointed out included early weaning, consistency and precision in feeding.

Producers pointed out there might not necessarily be savings in labor, but there was definitely a change in labor. Calf managers could focus on calf care instead of labor-intensive activities like carrying pails or buckets.

Hoskins urged producers considering the technology to keep in mind a few factors. First, she says, automatic feeders require resting space of 35 square feet per calf instead of the normal standard of 28 square feet. Facilities, including adequate bedding and proper ventilation, are “everything,” she says.

It’s also important to observe the feeder in action.

“If calves are grouping around the feeder, you probably need to ramp up how much they can eat at each feeding,” Hoskins says.

She recommends producers keep an eye out for bully calves and weak calves. Bully calves that are preventing other calves from eating should be moved as soon as possible. Weak calves need to be moved back to a younger group of calves or may need to be raised individually for a period of time.

A third course of action, and one many who struggle with feeders may overlook, is quality control. Hoskins says producers need to be taking bacteria samples in more places on the feeder to determine if everything is being cleaned with the proper chemicals and at the proper temperature.

She also advises producers to calibrate the machine every week to 10 days to ensure the proper amount and mixture of water to milk replacer.

Overall, Hoskins urged calf growers to use the machine as a resource rather than a replacement for calf care.

“I think autofeeders are going to continue to play a role in calf-rearing operations as we move forward,” Hoskins says, “but, as always, you get out what you put in.” PD

Our company contacts for this roundtable agree on one thing: Regardless of the brand of feeder producers use, the feeder and its surroundings, including bedding and ventilation, must be properly managed for a successful calf program.