Considering a calf autofeeder system? Plan for success!

Group housing systems for calves are gaining rapid acceptance supported by research and experiences of successful dairy producers. However, success is dependent upon some serious advance planning and knowledge of the essentials for achieving success. Read more…

Group housing systems for calves are gaining rapid acceptance supported by research and experiences of successful dairy producers. However, success is dependent upon some serious advance planning and knowledge of the essentials for achieving success. Read more…

By in Autofeeders on May 10, 2021
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Considering a calf autofeeder system? Plan for success!

Group housing systems for calves are gaining rapid acceptance supported by research and experiences of successful dairy producers. However, success is dependent upon some serious advance planning and knowledge of the essentials for achieving success. Any management decision involves estimating costs and expected benefit and determining the likelihood of achieving a positive net benefit.

Here are some of the reasons for considering an autofeeder system.

• Better nutrition.
The ability to feed more nutrients in a biologically normal fashion which means smaller, more frequent meals, just like nursing the dam.

• Improved animal welfare.
Group housed calves fed with autofeeders are not trained to “slug feed”. Research shows that this has an impact on current and later feeding behavior. Calves housed in pairs or in groups consume smaller and more frequent meals of milk and calf starter. They also begin eating starter feeds sooner which makes weaning much easier than calves housed individually. Group housed calves also respond to novel feeds and situations much better than individually housed calves. These behaviors continue in later life. Does this make them more adaptable as cows for transitioning to milking robots?

• Labor.
This factor needs to be considered carefully. Think of this system as one where you are employing a calf manager rather than a calf feeder. The autofeeder system can provide a desirable environment for the calf manager to spend more time with calves to achieve success and enjoy their work. Saving money on labor should not be the primary reason for choosing an autofeeder system.

The basics of calf care
Before making this investment in the future of your calves, make plans for success. Do not take any shortcuts to save a little initial cost that sacrifices future performance. If the farm has not been successful raising calves individually with low morbidity and mortality, this may not be the best system. The first component of a successful plan is to pay attention to the basics of calf care, which include:

  1. Management of the newborn to provide a clean calving condition. This minimizes introduction of undesirable bacteria into the calf’s digestive system.
  2. Early consumption of colostrum with a high IgG (>50g/l) with a low bacteria count.
  3. Feeding a high-quality liquid diet and a palatable and digestive calf starter.

Success starts with the planning process before the first dollar is spent. Make sure your reasons for considering the autofeeder systems are aligned with the reasons listed above. Plan for a facility that provides an excellent environment for both calves and employees.

Planning process step-by-step

• Professional assistance
Seek professional design assistance from an engineer, extension service, your equipment dealer or the representative of the company selling the equipment. The dealer or equipment supplier’s goal should be your long-term satisfaction, success and not the “quick” sale.

• Meet your needs
Purchase the correct feeder to meet the needs of the farm. Will milk be used or only milk replacer? How many feeding stations are needed and what additional features will best fit the needs of the calf enterprise?

• Check your facilities
Sometimes retrofitting existing facilities can be successful, but if the facility was not successful with individually housed calves, then start over!

• Excellent ventilation.
Positive pressure tubes or fans allowing cross ventilation are needed 24 hours a day for 365 days of the year. Open side walls do not work when the wind is not working!

• Drainage.
Slope the floors to allow drainage of animal waste and provide drainage systems to accommodate cleaning effluent from the autofeeders. Incorporate the effluent into the farm’s nutrient management plan.

• Storage
Feed and calf supplies storage to facilitate handling, minimize losses and preserve quality. This includes milk, milk replacer, calf starter feeds, drugs, vaccine, and other supplies. If milk is used in the autofeeder how will it be handled to preserve quality between the cow’s teat and the calf’s mouth?

• Water quality.
Make sure there is an adequate supply of high-quality water. If it’s not the same as used by the lactating herd, have it tested.

• Calf handling concerns.
Calves need to be handled for treatment, dehorning, administration of vaccine and movement from the wet calf area to the weaned calf pens. Minimize stress on calves and employees.

• Space and time
Do not overstock the facility. Plan for the variation in calf numbers experienced in a herd. The system works best when there is no more than a 2-week difference in age of calves. Allow for at least 35 ft2 (3.25 m2) of bedded space per calf and that the pen can be periodically cleaned out, sanitized, and left vacant for at least a week before repopulating.

• Working conditions
Working conditions for labor should promote efficiency and effectiveness. Design facilities which enable the calf manager to spend more time working with calves. Remove drudgery and roadblocks to effectiveness and efficiency.

Calf manager or calf feeder?

The autofeeder system requires a calf manager rather than a calf feeder. The calf manager should have the following qualities:

  1. They are a detail-oriented person.
  2. Achieving a high level of sanitation of the feeding equipment and the environment is important to them.
  3. They have a keen eye for calf behavior and can recognize early signs of disease.
  4. They like data! The best autofeeders provide valuable behavior data which helps to supplement visual observation and allow early detection of disease. The best systems enable remote observation of calves, equipment function and entry of health information.
  5. They are excellent communicators with the herd manager and the veterinarian.

High quality nutrition

There needs to be a commitment to a higher plane of high-quality nutrition. This system will not work if the user does not want to feed more milk or milk replacer (More than 6 quarts or liters/day). The greatest success occurs when calves are allowed to drink to appetite for at least the first month in small meals (~2L) interspersed at 2-hour intervals. Gradual step down of milk offered after that time encourages starter intake and facilitates weaning.

High quality nutrition means that, if milk is the choice, it should be pasteurized to reduce bacterial counts and risk of disease. Milk quality must be maintained by strict sanitation and rapid cooling to maintain quality until warmed prior to feeding. If milk replacer is the choice, insist on one with dairy ingredients possessing high quality standards that mix well at feeding temperature of 100 – 105F (37 – 40C). Optimum gains occur with at least 24% crude protein (CP).

Some farm farms feed calves individually for 3 to 14 days prior to placing in groups. This assure that they have strong appetites and will succeed in the group environment. This means having facilities for one- or two-weeks worth of calves based on calving schedules.

Offer a palatable starter grain with at least 20% CP during the first week of life. This system should not be chosen to save labor costs. There may be fewer people involved with calf feeding, but they will likely deserve a high level of pay as they focus on calf care and management of the system rather than the more routine tasks of cleaning and feeding. The work schedule can also be more flexible than needed for two or three times a day feeding of calves in individual housing.

Choose excellence

Consider visiting farms that have been successful and those that have not and note how those factors are associated with success. After considering these items, is the autofeeder system still in the best interests of the farm? Is the farm willing to invest in success? The benefits can be great and provide a high level of satisfaction if one is prepared to make a commitment to excellence.

Your Bob James

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