Top 10 Tips for Success with Autofeeders

Group housing systems for calves are gaining rapid acceptance in the dairy industry as a means to enhance animal welfare, enable more “biologically normal” feeding of preweaned dairy calves and provide an environment whereby calves can be “managed” by skilled personnel. Read more…

Group housing systems for calves are gaining rapid acceptance in the dairy industry as a means to enhance animal welfare, enable more “biologically normal” feeding of preweaned dairy calves and provide an environment whereby calves can be “managed” by skilled personnel. Read more…

By in Autofeeders on May 6, 2021
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Top 10 Tips for Success with Autofeeders

Group housing systems for calves are gaining rapid acceptance in the dairy industry as a means to enhance animal welfare, enable more “biologically normal” feeding of preweaned dairy calves and provide an environment whereby calves can be “managed” by skilled personnel. However, like any system there are key factors required for success. Success means low morbidity, mortality, excellent growth, high feed efficiency for calves and a productive environment for the calf caretaker.

Here are my top 10 tips essential for success!

Tip No. 1
Optimize colostrum production and quality. Excellent dry cow nutrition promotes yield of an adequate volume of colostrum with a high IgG content. Strive for low bacteria count too (<20,000 cfu/ml as high bacteria count impair antibody absorption. Practice exceptional sanitation of all harvest and feeding equipment.

Tip No. 2
Feed at least 200 g of IgG in the first 12 hours (sooner is better).

Tip No. 3
Calving in a “clean” environment minimizes introduction of undesirable bacteria into the digestive system. Think of this as a race between the bacteria and the colostrum antibodies. The first one there “wins”!

Tip No. 4
A well-designed facility is essential. Excellent ventilation and drainage are required to minimize diseases. Obtain professional assistance to assure that there are at least 4 air changes / hour during the winter and more in summer weather.

Tip No. 5
Great people mean having a calf manager rather than a calf feeder. These individuals have a passion for calves with:
• Keen observation skills enabling early detection of disease and implementing timely treatment.
• A commitment to consistency of feeding and management.
• A commitment to sanitation and cleanliness in all phases of calf care.

The first 5 tips are requisite for success in any calf rearing system, but maybe of greater importance as calves are comingled early in life providing greater opportunity for calf to calf transmission of disease. However, a significant advantage of group housing is the ability to feed calves in a more “biologically normal manner (more milk from smaller, more frequent meals) and provide an environment causing less “social” stress on calves particularly during weaning. Now for the next “top 5” that are found in great autofeeder systems!

Tip No. 6
High quality liquid diets whether it is based upon milk or milk replacer. Milk should be pasteurized (even saleable milk), and provisions made for cooled storage and maintaining quality prior to transfer to the feeder where it is warmed and delivered. Milk replacer should contain at least 24% protein from very digestible sources to optimize lean tissue gain. Highly digestible fat sources can vary from 10 to 25% depending upon energy needs by the calf. The powder must mix easily at feeding temperatures of 40oC. Palatable calf starters typically contain 20 to 22%CP and are fed fresh daily.

Tip No. 7
Backgrounding calves. Many farms feed calves in individual pens or hutches until they have strong appetites. In these situations, 3 to 4 L / feeding is the “norm”.

Tip No. 8
Implement a feeding plan with the autofeeder which mimics how “mom” would feed the calf.
a. Plans can be either ad libitum (termed 40 Fit by Foerster Technik) or restricted.
i. The ad libitum program allows the calf unlimited milk per day but limits the amount calves can drink at one visit to 1.5 to 3.0 L. Younger calves would have smaller limits and increase as they age. Once reaching the limit calves must wait a given time (usually 2 hours) until they are permitted another meal. Experience shows a wide variation in the amounts of milk calves will consume per day. Daily allotment decreases from 12L to 2L between 10 to 14 days before desired weaning age when the calf can no longer receive milk.
ii. Some farms are more comfortable with programs which establish a maximum amount that calves can consume per day which must be at least 8L/day. In this system, minimum and maximum meal sizes are established. With daily limits of 8L and a minimum meal size of 1.5L, a calf would need to wait nearly 4.5 hours before they could receive another meal (8L/24h per day = 33L milk credit earned /hour.) Weaning is achieved by gradually reducing milk as with the ad libitum program.
b. Limiting milk intake to less than 8L/day is strongly discouraged as most calves will be hungry and “cross sucking” is usually an undesirable outcome. They will also visit the feeding stall trying to obtain more milk with no success due to minimum meal size restrictions.

Tip No. 9
Excellent sanitation. Milk is an excellent growth medium for undesirable bacteria. The autofeeder should be programmed to automatically clean at least 4 times daily to minimize bacterial growth in the system. Replace milk lines on a timely basis to minimize buildup of biofilms.

Tip No. 10

Foerster Technik feeders are amazingly trouble free and easy to maintain but the dealer should have a commitment to excellent service and maintain the needed inventory of commonly used replacement parts, supplies and cleaning fluids unique to autofeeders.

As with any successful calf management program it is a team effort. The calf manager, herd manager, owner, consultant, veterinarian and Foerster Technik equipment supplier must be committed to success. Timely communication between all parties is essential to promote and maintain a high level of performance. This system is not designed to be low cost / day. Rather, when managed successfully, it will promote development of the dairy heifer which will enable her to express her genetic potential in a profitable manner.

Your Bob James

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