R2-D2 feeds calves

March 10, 2010 09:35 AM

For now, the Vanderwey brothers' Grand View Dairy has the nation's—and perhaps the world's—largest automated calf-feeding operation at a dairy.

But their Arizona operation may not hold that claim forever, Larry Vanderwey says.

"Automated calf feeding is the future,” he says. "It's where calf feeding is going to be.”

Like the resourceful R2-D2 robot in the Star Wars movies, the automated system is proving to be an invaluable asset for Grand View Dairy.

Feeding flexibility, reduced labor and calves' increased weight gain are among the benefits Vanderwey has seen by bringing automated calf feeders on board.

"The automated feeders are superior for maximum consumption,” he says. "We also see minimal stress, good socialization and good activity levels in the calves.”

Two years ago, the dairy wasn't even raising calves. But after seeing automated calf feeders during a trip to Sweden, where the feeders have been used for years, Vanderwey was inspired to begin calf-raising with the help of robotics.

Vanderwey and his three brothers operate a dry-lot dairy in Buckeye, west of Phoenix. The dairy houses two milk barns, each milking 2,350 Holsteins 3X.

Today, because of the Vanderweys' faith in automated calf-feeding, there are also plenty of calves on site. The dairy counts 175 newborns in hutches, 600 older calves in 20 pens inside the "auto” barn, and 2,000 heifers outside in corrals.
The Vanderweys use 10 DeLaval Calf Feeder 300A milk systems in the 20 pens of their calf barn. Each automated system serves two pens, which hold 25 to 35 calves each. When the calves want to eat, they make their way to the pen's milk station.

They approach the feeder through two side rails that are about the same length as their bodies. Standing between the rails, the calf feeds from a nipple at the end of a polyurethane tube, which is connected to the nearby automated unit.

Each calf wears a collar with a transponder. The transponder transmits a signal, which is picked up by a reader bar on the front of the station. The system immediately identifies the calf and its feeding requirements. Within seconds, the milk feeder is delivering breakfast, lunch or dinner rations to the animal.

Programmed by computer, the system delivers the precise amount of heated water and powdered milk replacer. The two ingredients have been mixed in a blender-like device inside the automated milk machine.  

A nearby computer processor not only controls the actions of the feeding station but is connected to a personal computer in Vanderwey's office.

Using the same software that drives Vanderwey's automated equipment in his milking parlor, the system is programmed to tell when, how much and what to feed each individual calf over a 24-hour period. It can track and control for group level, barn level, individual level, age, weight and more. It tells who's eating and who's not.

"We check the report twice a day,” Vanderwey says.

"There are unlimited possibilities to do what you want to do,” he adds. "It offers great flexibility.”
Calves are moved to the auto barn from the hutches when they're seven to 10 days old. It takes just one day to train them to eat from the automated feeders.

They'll stay there until they're up to 45 days old, although Vanderwey may hold a calf another five to 10 days if necessary.

 Initially, each calf on the automated feeder gets about 6 qt. of milk. That's increased to 9½ qt. by 38 days. The feedings are spread out over the course of a day, so calves consume what they need without gorging themselves.

"If the calf has just eaten an hour before, the feeder won't let them eat,” Vanderwey says.

The system typically allows the calf to eat four to five times over a 24-hour period. Over time, the automated feeders gradually reduce the calves' milk intake. At about one month, the feeders begin transitioning the calves to a grain diet.

As part of the automated calf-feeding system, the dairy has 20 galvanized-steel grain feeders for its transitioning calves. Each is located a short distance from the milk-feeding stations in the same pen.

Vanderwey starts the calves at 1.1 lb. to 1.65 lb. of grain per day and slowly increases their grain diet to 4.4 lb. to 5.5 lb./day. By 45 days, they're no longer consuming any milk. The calves are then ready to move to the heifer corrals outside.

"The gradual progression eases the stress of transitioning them from milk to grain,” Vanderwey says. "You can wean the calves as conservatively or aggressively as you want.”

Among the other benefits of using the automated feeders is the calves' impressive weight gain by the time they are weaned, he says. "We double their weight in 45 days,” he says. "We're realizing a wean weight 15 to 30 days faster.”

The calves are in great shape, he adds. Without the automated feeders, the dairy would have had to build three to five more calf barns and an additional 600 hutches, he says. "We've kept higher efficiencies and a 90% occupancy rate without increasing structural costs,” Vanderwey says.

Designed for the hot Arizona climate, the calf-feeding facilities are not completely enclosed—screens shield the calves from the desert's fierce summer sun. "We built [the system] to fit our needs and to keep the calves at comfortable levels,” Vanderwey says.

Vanderwey would not reveal the cost of his automated calf feeders, citing a working relationship with DeLaval. But he says what the dairy has saved in outlays and expenses makes the automated system well worth the cost.

"We've seen savings on equipment, facilities and labor,” he says. "We have five people managing up to 750 calves, versus probably needing one person for every 50 to 75 calves. The automated feeders cut our labor in half.”

Because the calves aren't housed in individual hutches, they can move freely in the auto-barn pens and socialize with each other. That allows them to build appetites, leading to reduced stress and better overall animal health, Vanderwey says.

Furthermore, there are no bottles, buckets or wagons, or worries about temperatures cooling as milk deliveries are made.
Although the calves in the auto barn feed from the same nipple and grain feeder and live in close contact in the pens, Vanderwey says illness or disease transmission hasn't been a problem. In the first place, only healthy calves are allowed into the auto barn to feed from the robotic system. What's more, the stations are equipped for automatic cleaning.

"They self-clean three times a day,” he says. "We also do supplemental cleaning every other day.”

Some learning curve was involved in the feeders' installation and use, Vanderwey says. Also, the automated units still involve calf-feeding, which requires good management, he adds. But overall, his faith in the robotic feeders has been justified.

"We haven't run into any drawbacks that have made us wish these units were gone,” Vanderwey says. "They're very good and we're pleased where we are today. There are more pros than there will ever be cons.

Robot surrogate
•  Grand View Dairy feeds 600 calves milk replacer through the system.

•  Feeding flexibility, reduced labor costs and impressive weight gain are among the robotic units' benefits.

•  For more information, click here.

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