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What auto-feeders have taught us about feeding calves

Robert James for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 March 2019

When calves are fed twice a day and housed in individual pens or hutches, the morning feeder is greeted by loud bawling of calves anxiously awaiting their morning meal. It may have been more than 12 hours since their last meal of 2 quarts of milk or milk replacer.

If it is milk replacer, it most likely contained 20 percent protein and 20 percent fat on a powder basis. We have become accustomed to this being “normal” calf behavior when it’s not. Reasons for this type of calf feeding management seemed totally logical at the time. We limited their milk or used a 20:20 milk replacer to make them hungry and encourage them to eat dry feed as soon as possible. (Holstein milk has about 26 percent protein and 29 percent fat on a powder basis.)



Considerable research over the past 20 years has led to the recommendation that dairy calves should be fed to meet their nutrient needs for their genetic growth potential. However, doubling or even tripling the amount of milk or milk replacer has quite often been unsuccessful. Again, this is not surprising when one considers this larger liquid diet was consumed in two large meals, often at unequal intervals. Large meals for the younger calves were tough on their digestive system. In addition, calves were frequently weaned by feeding one meal a day for a relatively short time (seven days?). This begs the question: Is this how “mom” would feed her calf?

In summary, we have fed and managed calves in this manner because it was cheaper per day, fit our labor availability on the farm and we had the mistaken belief we could “make up” the missing growth later in their life.

Although individual housing of pre-weaned calves has some advantages, pair housing or group housing of calves prior to weaning may have some significant advantages in social development and growth. Group-housed calves can be fed their liquid diet through mob feeders, acidified free-choice systems or automatic calf feeders.

For the purpose of this discussion, we will focus on automatic calf feeders. This is an evolving technology which has enabled some farms to feed and manage their calves in a more “normal” manner nutritionally and behaviorally. Automatic or computerized calf feeders are not necessarily “new,” as they were first introduced over 48 years ago. These early feeders were not very successful, as they were more difficult to sanitize and didn’t deliver milk or milk replacer in a manner to meet the calf’s nutrient requirements successfully.

However, considerable progress in hardware and software technology has overcome many of these challenges and has enabled auto-feeders to deliver nutrients in liquid form much more successfully. The keys to these technologies are:


  • Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags enable reliable identification of calves by the feeder.

  • Feeding plans can be developed which attempt to “mimic” the calf nursing the dam.

o After a short period where calves are housed and fed individually, they are placed in small groups of up to 25 calves per nipple.

o Daily milk or milk replacer allocations can be specified by the operator, or one can allow the calf to consume milk ad libitum.

o Feeding plans typically allow calves to increase their liquid intake relatively quickly and then limit the daily allocation after 4 to 6 weeks of age to encourage starter intake.

o Meal size can be specified to prevent calves from consuming too much milk at one visit to the feeder and require them to wait a period of time between meals.

o Weaning is much less stressful as the liquid diet can be gradually reduced over a period of 10 to 14 days rather than the impact of reducing meals to one per day.

  • The equipment can mix and deliver a specified mixture of milk or milk replacer more accurately and precisely. Some feeders can mix milk, milk replacer powder and water to deliver a consistent mixture which combines the advantages of feeding milk and milk replacer.

  • The more sophisticated equipment is capable of sanitizing the internal and external surfaces of the feeder in much the same manner as the clean-in-place (CIP) system in milking parlors. However, sanitizing the external surfaces of the feeding stall and the mixing area is strongly recommended.

What have auto-feeders taught us about feeding calves? Managing the calf operation can be more pleasurable as responsibilities shift from routine tasks of manual labor to observing and caring for calves. Objective measures of drinking speed, consumption and activity by the auto-feeder system can be a valuable tool in earlier identification of calves needing attention and complement the traditional observational skills of the calf feeder.


Auto-feeders have the potential to reveal that normal calf behavior is a contented animal which rarely vocalizes and spends time either running around the pen with its tail in the air, asleep, drinking milk or eating starter. Since they are housed in groups for a significant time prior to weaning, one rarely observes the post-weaning “slump” commonly observed in liberally fed, individually housed calves.  end mark

Robert James
  • Robert James

  • Calf Management Specialist
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Lessons of feeding calves on auto-feeders

  • When offered milk or milk replacer in multiple smaller meals, calves will drink quite a bit. Nearly all large-breed calves will drink at least 8 liters per day within the first week of life. Some calves will drink as much as 14 liters of milk per day within a few weeks. Healthy calves vary their intake by as much as 2 to 4 liters from one day to the next.

  • Typically, calves drink smaller, more frequent meals during the first weeks on the feeder, and after five to six weeks, meals are usually larger and less frequent.

  • After a meal, most calves will lie down. In fact, the barn is very quiet as most calves have full bellies and are not “tuned into” people being in the barn. The barn is quiet!

  • How fast calves drink milk varies quite a bit from one calf to another. Some calves may drink as fast as 1 liter per minute while others only 0.4 liters per minute. (Just like some people are fast or slow eaters.)

  • When calves don’t feel well, they will typically consume all of their milk early in the course of the disease, but at a slower rate. Although it’s not a perfect measure, one should be concerned when a calf begins to drink more slowly. Drinking speed will decline slowly over several days for those with diarrhea. This measure doesn’t appear to be very useful in predicting calves with respiratory disease as intake declines abruptly.

  • Computer technology allows the manager to set alarms which are usually based upon a percentage reduction in consumption, drinking speed or other behavioral measures.

  • Calves will “teach” each other. Most manufacturers recommend feeding calves individually from at least a few days of age up to 10 days old before placing them in the group. The best indicator is calves should be aggressive eaters before placing them in the group.

o Calves are hand-fed their morning milking and then placed in the group. Most farms will lead calves to the stall in the evening or wait until the next morning to train them to the feeder. Training involves leading calves to the nipple and pressing a button which initially will deliver milk to the teat. In many cases, calves will learn where the feeder is from older calves within the group. It is important not to “overtrain” calves by leading them to the nipple more than once or twice.

o Most farms place a small feedbunk within the pen or on the fenceline for calf starter grain. In nearly all cases, calves learn where the grain is located by observing other calves within the group. Recommendations for nutrient content and starter management are the same as for individual-fed calves.

  •  “People” factors

o Much of the drudgery involved with calf care – bucket and bottle washing, mixing milk replacer and transporting the liquid diet to the calves has been reduced or eliminated. This time can now be used to walk pens at least twice daily to observe calf behavior.

o Observations of behavior: Coughing, head position, listlessness, etc. are combined with auto-feeder records on drinking speed and daily consumption with the opportunity to make more timely decisions on treatment.

o Implementation of aggressive sanitation protocols is required to minimize disease transfer.

o A “can-do” attitude is required by farm management, labor and the veterinarian. Excellent facility design, colostrum management and a commitment to an enhanced nutrition program involving milk or milk replacer for pre-weaning is essential for success.