What have “autofeeders” taught me about feeding dairy calves?

By in Calf Management on June 6, 2023
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What have “autofeeders” taught me about feeding dairy calves?

Most of us that have fed calves have a similar impression of “what’s normal” for feeding calves and calf behavior.  What was “normal”?

  • We fed them twice a day.
  • We fed two quarts (liters) per feeding. We did this because milk or milk replacer was expensive and because we wanted to “encourage” them to start eating calf starter and wean them sooner.  Make life easier for us, right?
  • The calves “bawled” quite loudly when we started feeding them. They were hungry.
  • They didn’t grow very much during the first three weeks of life.

 Do we need to consider what is “normal” for feeding a young mammal?   What other mammalian species limits milk to their offspring during the first weeks of life????   Our “goal” has been to encourage rumen development and early weaning.   Should this be the primary goal, or should we feed and manage them to achieve their biological potential?

So, what have I learned from managing calves in autofeeder systems?  

  • Calves will drink more than 4 quarts (liters) of milk / day within the first few days of life!
  • In fact, it’s not usual for calves to drink more than 8 quarts (liters) of milk by the middle of the second week!
  • Some calves will drink more than 12 quarts (liters) / day!
  • When allowed to drink ad libitum, they will consume multiple small meals(1 – 2 quarts) of milk. Doesn’t this sound like what happens when a  beef calf nurses the dam?   As calves age, they begin consuming fewer larger meals (3.5 quarts) .
  • Remember that the autofeeder does not “force” them to consume milk. In fact, when allowed ad libitum milk their daily intake will vary from day to day by several quarts (liters).
  • When calves consume more milk early in life they grow much better during the first weeks of life when they may be more prone to disease. They will establish some reserves of body condition (just like the dry cow) to utilize during colder weather or when their appetite might be impaired when they might have scours or respiratory 
  • What about starter intake? When calves are group housed they will start eating starter sooner since they learn from their peers in the pen.  If there is a delay in starter intake as compared to calves that are bottle fed, it’s likely only going to be a problem for a few weeks which has minimal impact on lifetime performance.
  • The autofeeder enables one to wean calves in a more “normal” fashion. Traditionally, we have weaned calves by feeding them once a day for a week before ceasing milk feeding.  As a result, these calves frequently experience a week or two of negative weight gain before resuming acceptable growth.
  • Since the calves are already in group pens, they will adjust to weaning and moving to the weaned calf pen readily.
  • It’s really quiet in the calf barn. If the feeding program is working and the feeder is functioning, calves are not making any noise!  They may be lying down, running around the pen or eating.  

Managing calves for success.   Transitioning to an autofeeder system requires an investment in facilities and personnel.  Calves must be born in a clean environment and fed sufficient quantities of high IgG colostrum early in life to assure that calves are vigorous and enter the group pen within 3 – 5 days of life with strong appetites.   Key components of the feeding program include:

  • Allow the calf to drink as much milk as they desire for at least 28 days. Limit meal size to 2 quarts (liters) every 2 hours.
  • From 28 days reduce the daily milk allowance from 12 quarts (liters) to 8 quarts (liters) over 4 days. In some cases, for smaller breeds reduce the milk to 7 or even 6  quarts (liters).   This will stimulate starter intake.
  • Hold the daily allowance constant for 10 days. Increase maximum meal size to 3 quarts (liters).
  • Wean them by reducing milk allowance to 2 quarts (liters) over 14 days.
  • Place them in the weaned calf pens a week later.

How can we use this information to better manage our calves when fed bottles or buckets in hutches or individual pens?

  • Start feeding calves with 2-quart bottles for the first week.
  • Increase to 3-quart bottles by the second week. Although they are difficult to handle 4 quart bottles are even better for the calf
  • Try to maintain at least a 10-hour interval between feedings.
  • About 7 to 10 days before weaning reduce milk allotment/ feeding by 1 quart and still feed twice a day.  
  • About 3 – 5 days later feed once a day.

Step down weaning makes the transition more gradual and creates less stress on the calf.  Yes, it makes things a bit more complicated, but develop a system that works for the farm and the calf .

What about pair feeding?   One still must feed calves individually, but this system captures the “social” advantages of group housing systems.  Calves are calmer and begin consuming calf starter sooner.   Note that pair housed calves should be fed at least 8 quarts (liters) of milk daily, or cross sucking can be a problem.

Although bucket feeding provides the potential for meeting the calf’s requirements better they are more difficult to keep clean and are less desirable for pair fed calves due to the rapid intake of milk.

Let’s develop calf feeding programs that begin to manage calves to meet their requirements for growth  and not so much for our convenience  and low daily cost.  Benefits are realized in better health and lifetime performance.   

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