Automated calf feeders can be labor-saving dreams or disease-infected train wrecks. It all comes down to how the technology is managed and how the calves are housed and monitored, says Marcia Endres, a University of Minnesota dairy specialist. “Good health is achievable in group-housed, preweaned calves as long as appropriate management and maintenance of equipment are emphasized and implemented,” Endres says.
Michael Hunt, a Morgantown, Ky., farmer who milks 250 cows and has had a calf feeder since September 2015, agrees. “The automated feeders allow us to manage the calves rather than manage problems,” he says. Both spoke at the 2017 Precision Dairy Conference in Lexington, Ky., in late May.
Clean nipples and hoses, replaced frequently, are key to preventing bacterial build-up in automated calf feeding systems.
Endres and her students conducted a study that included 38 Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin herds that have installed the feeders over the past several years. Evaluators visited each farm eight times over a period of 18 months, looking at about 150 variables on each visit. Over that period, more than 10,000 calves were evaluated and calf health scores collected.
Of the farms evaluated, 57% had a mortality rate of less than 3%. The national average is 6%, according to the 2017 National Animal Health Monitoring Study. But 13% of the farms involved in the study had mortality rates above 7%. The range was 0.2% to 13.4% mortality rate. “Roughly 60% were doing a pretty good job of keeping death rate below 5%, which is the gold standard,” Endres says.
David Corbin, Taylor County, Ky., milks about 300 cows and has used an automated feeder for the past three years. In that time, he has fed some 400 calves through the system and has lost only one. He is religious about sanitation, cleaning the system four times per day and replacing nipples daily and hoses weekly.
“I do watch drinking speed, and if it’s slowing down, I will treat the calf,” he says. He also keeps calves in the pens for a week after they’re weaned. That ensures they’re eating plenty of starter and results in a better transition to the grower pens.
His pens are sloped and underlain with gravel to ensure good drainage. He maintains a deep bed of straw on top of that.
Calves should be drinking 8 to 10 liters per day, with meal size of 2 to 2.5 liters each feeding.
About five times a year, he will completely clean each pen, taking off about 2" of gravel and replacing it with clean material. That ensures no buildup of bacteria below the straw bedding.
Jerry Gentry, Pulaski County, Ky., has 80 cows and has been using an automated calf feeder for the past two years. He has fed about 100 heifer calves through the system and has not yet lost a calf. He keeps the group size to less than 15. “We clean our system once each day, put new hoses on weekly and replace nipples every two to three weeks. But we have low calf numbers,” he says. Gentry’s pens have concrete floors. Pens are bedded with kiln-dried sawdust which is completely replaced between groups of calves.
As mentioned earlier, Michael Hunt, Morgantown, Ky., milks 250 cows and has had a calf feeder for nearly two years. His calves, fed an accelerated-growth milk replacer, will peak at 12 liters per day, and typically achieve rates of gain from 2.25 lb. to 2.75 lb. per day.
Adjusting automatic feeder systems for optimal feeding rates is critical for achieving higher growth rates.
Because he calves very few cows in summer, he’s able to leave the calf barn empty for about six weeks. He deep beds with straw on top of sand surface. “Air quality is the key to these barns,” he says.
Hunt says he sees the most respiratory problems July through October, when humidity is high.
Growth rates have been so good on the calves and resulting heifers, Hunt has been able to drop his age at first insemination from 15 or 16 months to 12. “Heifers are now 150 lb. to 200 lb. heavier at 12 months than they were at 14 months before we had the barn,” he says. “We’ll see the first fresh heifers from our new calf barn this fall, and that will tell us how we did. So far it has worked out well.”
For the details of the keys to making automated calf feeders work, visit www.DairyHerd.com/AutoCalfFeeders or download the printable PDF checklist for automated calf feeders.
Note: This article appears in the October 2017 magazine issue of Dairy Herd Management.