Robot Mama Automated calf-feeding system shows promise

May 3, 2010 11:37 AM

"Calf feeding is fun again.” So testifies Marie Pagenkopf on the merits of automatic, robotic calf feeding. Pagenkopf manages the dairy side of the 500-cow Sandy Acres Dairy operation near Elk Mound, Wis.

She had to convince her husband, Jeff, and their herd veterinarian that robot calf feeding was safe for calves, viable and cost-effective.

"I was the only one sold on it. But I used to feed free-choice acidified milk replacer, and I knew how well calves could grow on free-choice feeding in a group setting,” she says.

The concern of both Pagenkopf's husband and their veterinarian was disease transmission in group pens from calves suckling off common nipples. "But with the feeder, we've seen a significant decrease in scours, and our treatment costs and injections have dropped by two-thirds,” she says.

"Calves on the feeder don't get ill as often because they can eat when they want,” adds daughter Kayla, who manages the calves. "And I think they're under less stress from the social aspect because they're in the group pens.”

The smaller, more frequent meals play into calf health as well since there is less slug feeding, says Brad Peissig, a Land O'Lakes Purina Feed dairy production specialist who worked with the Pagenkopfs on their transition to robotic feeding.

Calves are bottle-fed in individual pens for the first four days of life. Then they're introduced to a group pen, which houses up to 25 heifer calves with access to one nipple. "Usually, we don't have to show them more than two or three times where the nipple is,” Pagenkopf says.

The calves are identified with RFID button tags so the DeLaval CF1000 feeder's computer can track their feeder visits and amount consumed. Some calves visit the feeder as many as 20 times per day, but feed intake is regulated by the robot.

The computer has four feeding regime programs, and the Pagenkopfs can place any calf onto any of these programs to control feed intake. Calves that reach the top intake of 8 liters of milk replacer per day are consuming 3.1 lb. of the 28% protein/20% fat powder.

Alarm lists can be pulled at any time to see how much calves are eating and whether any calves have stopped visiting the machine.

Pens are sized to provide 35 sq. ft. of deep-bedded straw per calf. Calves also have access to free-choice water and calf starter. "I'm amazed at how much starter these little ones will eat,” Pagenkopf says. "But when they see the older calves eating, they'll start nibbling, too.”

If calves are gaining well at four weeks of age, they're moved to an adjacent robot-feeding pen for larger calves. They're typically weaned at eight weeks. Since the robot was installed last spring, calves on average are 25 lb. heavier at weaning.

The robot's price tag, including programs, plumbing and wiring, came to $23,000. But the Pagenkopfs figure they're saving the equivalent labor of 1½ employees while getting bigger, healthier calves.

Bonus content:

Arizona calf ranch robots

Robotic feeders:

DeLaval Calf Feeders

DeLaval brochure, "Get Calves Off to the Healthy Start They Need"

GEA Calf Feeders

Land O''Lakes brochure, "Get Calves Off to the Healthy Start They Need"

Robotic calf feeding videos from DeLaval (click on "Videos" in the left-hand column)


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