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
click image to zoomTom Earleywine 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.