A progress report on automated calf-feeding systems

This is the first in a two-part series on automated calf-feeding systems

Automated calf-feeding systems, or autofeeders, have been available in the United States for approximately 10 years, with a major surge in adoption in the past five years. How are the systems working, and what have we learned about managing them?

For the most part, producers who have switched to autofeeders are pleased, according to calf and heifer management consultant Sam Leadley, PhD, with Attica Veterinary Associates, Attica, N.Y.

“There are a few cases of operations that have dis-adopted them and gone back to individual feeding, but they are rare,” he said. “In most situations, autofeeders are meeting or exceeding producers’ expectations.”

Like any new management system, adoption of the technology has not been without challenges, with some lessons learned the hard way.

Leadley said adapting to autofeeders actually involves two whole-scale management changes – group housing and more frequent, automated feeding.

“When you’re stacking two management changes on top of each other, it’s stressful for both the animals and their managers,” he stated. “Often, when calves get sick or aren’t performing well, it’s the autofeeder getting blamed, when actually the setback is due to group-housing issues.”

Pouring on the nutrients

Autofeeders: How are they working? The ability to deliver full-potential liquid nutrition protocols to calves is one of the key motivators for adopting autofeeders, according to Tom Earleywine, PhD, Director of Nutritional Services for Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products Co. Earleywine cited recent data indicating that feeding calves on a higher plane of nutrition three times per day – even when the same total amount of milk or milk replacer is fed daily – results in improved weight gain, stature growth and likelihood of entering lactation.

Feeding smaller meals more frequently also has proven to reduce abomasal ulcers and bloat, most likely due to a smaller and shorter duration spike in abomasal pH.

Increasing the frequency and nutritional density of feedings has helped calf raisers meet the industry benchmark of doubling calves’ birth weights by 56 to 60 days of age. Research at the University of Minnesota showed higher intake of solids in the liquid diet is associated with significant reductions in sickness and death loss, and lower cost per unit of weight gain. Research from Cornell University showed faster recovery and better gains in calves challenged with cryptosporidium when they were fed a higher level of milk replacer nutrition. There also is a growing body of research indicating feeding and growing calves more aggressively in the milk-feeding stage leads to earlier breeding readiness and increased lifetime milk production.

Leadley said autofeeders are a tremendous asset in delivering such programs.

“When you’re talking about feeding 7.0 to 10.0 quarts of milk per day, it’s challenging to do that with traditional, individual feeding programs,” he noted. “Autofeeders make it much easier to achieve high rates of intake, and make step-up and step-down programs more efficient.”

Challenges in transition

Virginia Tech University and Iowa State University (ISU) recently conducted surveys to assess producers’ experiences and opinions concerning autofeeders.

Autofeeders: How are they working? Jennifer Bentley, ISU Extension  dairy specialist, said ventilation issues and respiratory disease incidence were the biggest challenges producers have encountered with autofeeding systems. Increased milk feeding rates results in more urine output, making it more difficult to maintain good air quality.

“Many producers have had to make additional modifications to their ventilation systems after switching to autofeeders,” she noted. “That’s especially true for producers who have retrofitted existing buildings.”

Producers in the Virginia Tech study also indicated lower incidence of pneumonia when calves are fed individually and not put on the feeder until 10-14 days of age.

Competition and “bullying” at the feeder also was identified as a challenge, often due to a wide age spread among calves in the group, and underfeeding. Limit feeding (1.5 lbs. of solids per day or less), or feeding small amounts (a pint or less per feeding session) can create crowding at the feeder.

Cross-sucking was identified as a challenge – but not a serious concern – by some producers. Those problems usually were related to calves not being fed enough, or machine malfunction. Providing proper weaning transition also has been identified as a remedy to cross-sucking.

As more sophisticated systems allow feeding pasteurized waste milk or whole milk, producers noted the additional management challenges of correctly pasteurizing, storing and transferring milk.

Finally, producers said getting up to speed on the machine’s software program and reports was a short-term challenge.


Management adjustments

Surveyed producers and experts agree that installing autofeeders does not give one a “pass” for managing calves.

“Breakdowns in the fundamentals of raising healthy calves will only be magnified by autofeeders and group housing,” said Bentley. “It’s critical that dry-cow care and vaccination; colostrum delivery; bedding and ventilation are managed diligently. If they’re not, the system will fail, despite all the nutritional benefits supplied by the autofeeder.”

Daily monitoring of data supplied by most autofeeders helps assess calf health and performance. By monitoring individual animals for feeding frequency, consumption and drinking speed, sick animals can be detected before they start to show clinical signs. Many systems offer the capability of delivering oral antibiotics, coccidiostats and/or electrolytes to individual animals.

Leadley said the best animal caretakers will have the most success with autofeeders. He advises producers towalk through pens and observe animals before viewing computer reports. Managers with instinctive knowledge of animal behavior will be able to spot sick animals; computer data can then be consulted for additional confirmation.

“The priority of making a timely diagnosis of sick calves in group housing is much higher,” said Leadley. “When one animal in the pen is sick, they all are at risk.”

“All-in, all-out” management of feeding rooms is best for biosecurity, according to Earleywine. If a smaller herd size does not make “all-in” possible, he said “all-out” is still a must. “Pens must be completely emptied, cleaned and sanitized between groups of calves to keep pathogen loads down,” he stated.


Labor savings?

One of the reasons producers cite most frequently for adopting autofeeding is labor savings. Interestingly, users are finding the systems don’t save a tremendous amount of time day-to-day. However, they do change the way labor is expended – from the physical routine of delivering individual feedings, to a more managerial role in which performance and outcomes are regularly measured and monitored.

In the Iowa study, “producers reported more flexibility in their calf-management schedules, even though the actual time they spent on the calves was about the same,” said Bentley. The Virginia Tech respondents reported similar conclusions.

New tasks – such as feeder cleaning, checking hoses and nipples, replacing parts, training calves and checking calf health – replace some of the time originally spent feeding, Leadley said. At the same time, producers feel they are spending time more efficiently, finding greater value in the work to track performance, he added.

Results speak volumes

While only 37% of the Iowa producers surveyed monitored average daily gain (ADG), those who did reported an impressive ADG from birth to weaning of 2.3 lbs. Average mortality rate was 3%, and average treatments for both scours and respiratory disease were 14% each.

Earleywine pointed to additional data that showed feeding calves on a higher plane of nutrition increased 12-week weights of calves – a timeframe that accommodates the transition through weaning. He believes there are other welfare benefits to autofeeders, for both calves and people.

“Allowing calves to act on their natural instincts to eat when they are hungry and then have plenty of resting space has to be less stressful on the animals,” he said. “At the same time, full-potential nutrition is helping to produce more quality calves. And I think most producers would agree that the quality of their lives since adopting autofeeders also has improved.”

Economic analysis

To help individual producers assess the economic impact of installing an autofeeder system, Jennifer Bentley and Kristen Schulte with Iowa State University Extension have developed an

“Economics of Automated Calf Feeding” financial series. It includes a budget worksheet, Excel® based spreadsheet, and user guide. A producer can input individual values and estimates for their operations and can calculate the net financial impact and change in cash flow with the switch to autofeeding.

The materials can be accessed at http://www.extension.iastate.edu/dairyteam/calves-heifers under “Factsheets.”

Coming in Part 2:

Profiles of calf raisers who have adopted autofeeders.