How automatic calf feeders save time and generate flexibility
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As dairy farms grow, labor is becoming one of the main limiting factors. As a result, more dairy farms are starting to use automatic feeders in their calf-rearing system. Automatic feeders are designed to save labor, however, they do require additional time and attention in training the calves to start on the feeder as well as regular check-ins that the calves are growing at a healthy rate.
Automatic feeders have many benefits, including — if managed in an effective way — the ability to have different feeding schedules depending on the calf. In order to provide individual care and optimize growth rates, several schedules can easily accumulate. A calf feeder can alter the daily milk feeding schedule of an individual animal without any daily manual adjustments. In this way, automatic calf feeders can really support the daily routines on the farm by saving labor and making labor input more flexible.
Selecting the right automatic feeder
When deciding to use automatic milk feeders, there are many suppliers to consider. Important topics to take into account when deciding are:
- Amount of calves per feeder
- Number of drinking stations per feeder
- Simplicity of cleaning of the system
- Ease of calibrating the feeder
- Identification system used (collar and/or ear tag)
- Management program connected to the feeder
When installing the automatic feeder, there are three common pen designs to choose from:
- Multiple all-in all-out pens
- All ages together in one group
- Switching pens depending on age
Multiple all-in all-out pens are best suited for large farms. Calves enter the group and stay in the same group until the milk period is finished. For smaller farms, all ages together in one group is commonly practiced. Here, calves of different ages stay together in one group and are taken out when their individual milk period is finished. Another possibility is that calves enter one group and in time, depending on age, are switched to another group. So a calf will start in a 1–4 week-old pen and at 4 weeks be moved to a 5–8 week-old pen.
An option for smaller farms is to consider using one drinking station for two groups via a switch-gate. A switch-gate allows for a smaller investment (fewer machines) while also allowing for smaller pen sizes. In general, we do not want the age difference in a group to be too large as calves will always compete for feed. A pen with a large range in calf size will result in more unrest and it will be difficult to check up on one individual calf.
Additional things to consider are, next to the milk-fed pens, a similarly designed pen for weaned calves. This extra space will allow weaned calves to stay in a familiar environment after weaning, which helps lower stress. Also, no matter the design selected, the group pens should be equipped with a proper place for concentrate feed and supplying roughage. Both the concentrate and roughage should be the same as the calves were eating during the first 10 days before entering the automatic feeder pen.
Concerning management, we partly lose control when calves enter a group. However, with an automatic feeder, individual drinking behavior can still be checked. Unfortunately, it is difficult to check individual water and solid feed intake. To help make sure they are used to drinking water and eating solid feed, calves should be housed individually for the first 10 days. In this way, they are easier to control and monitor before entering the group pen.
Preparing calves for an automatic milk feeder
As previously mentioned, before being introduced to an automatic feeder, calves should be housed individually for the first 10 days after birth. Before calves are moved to the automatic feeder, they should be accustomed to drinking water, eating solid feed, and are overall healthy. The feeding schedule during the first 10 days is the same schedule as calves who are fed milk manually for the entire milk feeding period. To prepare the calf for transition, the same milk replacer should be fed via a teat bucket in the individual pen as will be fed in the automatic feeding station.
Introducing calves to an automatic feeder
On the day of moving a calf to the automatic feeder pen, it is advised to skip the morning feeding and move the calf in the morning. Once moved, guide it to the automatic feeding station for the first milk feeding. During the rest of the day, monitor if the calf is drinking milk. If it is not, guide it to the feeding station again. In most cases, calves will manage to feed on their own after they are guided to the station once or twice.
Managing calves on an automatic feeder
As the obligatory visit to feed the calves is lost when using the automatic feeder, the daily routine of managing calves on an automatic feeder should be consistently executed. Next to that, one must check the automatic feeder is working properly every day. Therefore, the daily routine should comprise of: cleaning the milk replacer outflow opening, checking the daily milk intake, topping off the milk replacer container, and checking the condition of the teat. On a monthly basis, the automatic feeder should be calibrated and the water temperature checked. A helpful tip is looking at the drinking speed of the calves. A reduction of drinking speed can be an early-stage indicator for potential health issues like pulmonary problems.
Weaning calves using an automatic feeder
When it is time to wean the calves, the automatic feeder can also be helpful by gradually implementing the desired weaning schedule to a zero milk feeding regime. However, be careful not to reduce the volume of milk per meal to such a small number (where they receive some milk but not enough to satisfy them) that the calves will get restless. In general, the advice is not to go below 1 liter of milk replacer per visit. When the calves are weaned, it is best to get them out of the group with a feeding station and move them to the weaned pen described above. If calves are kept in a group with a feeding station, they will become restless since other calves drinking milk will trigger the weaned calves to still visit the feeding station and even try to steal milk.
As finding labor becomes increasingly difficult, automatic feeders can contribute to reducing labor costs and make labor input more flexible. If effectively managed, automatic feeders can support the efficient and healthy rearing of calves into future productive dairy cows.
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