Now that automated calf feeders have been in place on some U.S. dairies for several years, their users are able to report some of the advantages and pitfalls of the systems.  Jennifer Bentley, Extension Dairy Specialist for Iowa State University, shared some important lessons from autofeeder users on a recent webinar.

Among her advice from working with producers with autofeeders was: 

Excellent neonatal care is critical – Dry-cow nutrition and vaccination; a clean calving environment and excellent colostrum management and delivery all are extremely important for getting calves off to a healthy start on the autofeeders.

Age of entry is farm-specific – Three to 10 days is the typical age at which most dairies move their calves onto autofeeders.  Calves started at the earlier end of that range will need more individual attention to get started.

Don’t over-attend calves – On the other hand, the presence humans can imprint a connection with time to eat, so it is best to manage the amount of time a person spends in the calf pen so that calves develop their own instincts to eat.

Pay attention to stall design – Make sure feeding stalls are designed so that calves cannot dominate or displace one another at the feeding station.

Sanitation protocols are necessary – Producers who follow the manufacturer’s instructions for manual and automatic cleaning tend to report the fewest problems.  Be sure to monitor the on-farm inventory of cleaning solutions so they do not run out. 

Ventilation cannot be an “afterthought” – Many producers have had to make additional modifications to their group-housing facilities because of problems with respiratory disease.  In retrofitted facilities with low ceilings, resting area per calf may need to be greater than the standard recommendation of 35 square feet.

Cross sucking often indicates nutritional shortages -  When cross-sucking is observed, the first thing to check is whether calves are receiving appropriate milk volume and solids levels.  Other measures producers are using to discourage cross-sucking are feeding water from nipple feeders and providing molasses lick bowls.

Individual calf care still matters – While less time is needed to physically perform feeding tasks, more management time needs to be devoted to observing and treating calves, monitoring records and evaluating calf performance.


The Iowa State webinar can be viewed in full at