Nutrition: Robotic Nursers

February 26, 2013 09:20 PM

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**Extended comments highlighted in blue.

The popularity of electronic liquid feeders for young calves is increasing as this technology combines accelerated growth programs with improved calf immunity. Electronic liquid feeding units have the following characteristics.

• Cost varies from $16,000 to $22,000 per unit that has two individual nipple units, each nipple can feed 25 calves, or a total of 50 calves per unit (price does not include housing, pasteurizer, or other equipment). Calves spend 30 to 50 minutes per day in the feeding stall.

• Each calf has an electronic identification chip (RFID) or collar that can be read by the electronic feeder.

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• Units track the amount of liquid consumed today and yesterday, the amount remaining today, number of visits per day, drinking speed, number of "breaks" (calf leaves before consuming the amount programmed), medication dispensed, and/or meal frequency per 24 hours. If the calf does not consume the amount mixed, the unconsumed liquid amount rolls over to the next feeding with a maximum allowed (2.5 quarts). The next calf does not consume the remaining milk; only the amount programmed. Nipples are not sanitized between calves; the unit is automatically cleaned three to four times a day.

• Powder is mixed with warm water as need for each calf (fresh) or pasteurized milk (both delivered at 101 degrees F).

Calves will need training the first day or two to acclimate to the robotic feeders.

At the 2013 Illinois Dairy Summit meetings, a panel of dairy managers responded to the following questions.

Question: What are the advantages and pay back on the units?

Answer: Table 1 lists the possible savings listed by dairy managers (adjust the values to reflect your situation, costs, and region).

• Faster growth (doubling of body weight by weaning) can improve milk yield by 1,100 to 1,400 pounds more milk in subsequent lactations (Cornell and Illinois research).
• Heifers enter the milking herd one to two months earlier reducing feed costs and generating milk income sooner.

• Labor savings varied from farm to farm. The role of labor shifts to monitor liquid intake, check and treat sick calves, and ensure equipment is filled and working properly vs. the physical labor of filling, cleaning, and moving milk bottles or pails three times a day in calf hutches.

• Fast growing calves with balanced nutrients have improved immunity with death losses less than 2%.

• Sucking was not reported as a problem.

Question: What challenges did you incur and must be managed?


• Ventilation was critical to reduce humidity, ammonia build-up and avoid respiratory problems. All units installed air tubes with a minimum of four exchanges per hour in the winter.

• Keeping bedding dry and deep (in the winter to allow nesting) improved calf performance. One unit had a concrete floor and scrap alley between the feeder and bedding area (similar to compost barns) which can be flushed. Calf blankets were used on all farms in the winter.

• Daily monitoring calves that drop 75% in liquid feed intake must be evaluated to determine the cause and/or treatment started (electrolytes or medication).

• Calves were started in individual pens for 3 to 10 days to train calves to use a nipple bottle, moved to the feeding unit when the calf was "aggressive" sucking with a nipple, and may need training for 1 to 2 days to "find" the nipple feeder.

• Because calf starter is offered free choice, the amount consumed per calf cannot be measured to determine when weaning could be started (varied from 6 to 10 weeks of age).

Question: What management factors were recommended?

Answer: Calves were gradually increased in liquid from five quarts (liters) when started on the feeder up to 9 to 10 quarters per calf per day. Weaning occurred as calves were reduced to two to four quarts over seven days.

• Pasteurized waste milk, high somatic milk, or a high quality milk replacer can be fed.

• Units can meter veterinary prescribed medication to control coccidosis and/or diseases.

• Sick calves remained in the group pen and treated as needed.

• Managers moved calves up in pens to keep ages more uniform while other farms filled a pen and did not move calves (stayed in the same group—all in all out approach).

• Nipples were sanitized and rotated daily to three times a week.

Mike Hutjens is an Extension dairy specialist at the University of Illinois–Urbana. You can contact him at

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