Automatic calf feeders are becoming increasingly popular across the country as farmers look to feed more liquid nutrition without increasing labor. But, it’s no secret that group housing can increase the chance of disease spread amongst calves compared to individual housing.
The good news is, with proper management and nutrition you can help prevent disease.
Here are four tips to help keep calves healthy when using automatic calf feeders:
Keep disease at bay by keeping a close eye on management and nutrition.
1. Wait to introduce calves to the feeder
Many farmers want to move calves to automatic calf feeders as soon as possible, but it might cause problems in the long run.
Most calf health challenges occur in the first two weeks of life, including scours and respiratory disease. Waiting until calves are past these challenges to introduce them to the feeders allows for closer management to catch and prevent disease. In fact, calves have 50 percent less risk of respiratory disease when started on automatic feeders at 14 days of age compared to those started right away.
Waiting until 14 days of age might not be feasible for everyone. The rule of thumb is to make sure calves are aggressive, consistently suckling a bottle and have passed most newborn health issues before introducing them to an automatic feeder.
2. Train employees to a higher level of management
Automatic calf feeders allow employees to spend less time feeding and more time managing calves. However, it takes a higher level of calf knowledge and experience to catch and prevent disease. Train calf managers to identify illness through observation and act quickly to prevent the spread of disease.
Scours can be hard to catch in group housing environments. Calves are fed a higher amount of liquid nutrition, which naturally increases the amount of liquid manure. Train employees to identify the difference between scours and the natural result of feeding more liquid nutrition. Evaluate calf behavior using an attitude score to determine when a calf is experiencing true scours.
Drinking speed is another indication of sickness in calves. By monitoring drinking speed daily, employees can detect changes in health status early on. This measurement is especially helpful when detecting respiratory disease. Most calves with respiratory disease will continue to eat, but at a slower rate – as much as 80 percent slower than the previous day.
Talk to your automatic calf feeder specialist about disease prevention for your calves.
3. Keep equipment and environment clean
Cleaning and sanitation are critical to keep the spread of disease in check. Automatic calf feeders are no exception but provide an extra level of difficulty with all the equipment nooks and crannies where bacteria can grow. Daily cleaning and sanitation of equipment can help keep calves healthy.
Most feeders have an automatic cleaning setting that should be run at least three times daily. Using the correct products is crucial to get a thorough clean. At least one manual and/or circuit cleaning should be done each day as well. Think of it like cleaning a milking system – detergent, acid and sanitizer are required. Automatic calf feeders require the same process, as well as some elbow grease. Manually clean areas around the feeder, provide adequate drainage, replace hoses every two weeks, and rotate and clean nipples twice a day.
Another area to keep a close eye on is group waterers. Nasal secretions can spread through communal pen areas, like waterers, increasing risk of respiratory disease. Good drainage, frequent waterer cleaning and separate waterers for each pen can help reduce disease spread.
4. Feed more nutrition
Calf management is only one side of the coin when it comes to disease prevention. The other is nutrition. The beauty of automatic calf feeders is they allow you to increase intakes without increasing meal size or labor. Providing an adequate level of nutrition equips calves to handle challenges from disease, weather or stress, and continue growing.
Whether you use a restricted or unlimited system, calves should consume 8-12 liters or more of milk or milk replacer per calf daily. Allow calves to drink 2-3 liters per feeding to help maximize intakes and improve growth.
There’s always a risk for disease spread with group-housed calves (or any calves for that matter), but proper management and nutrition can help keep calves on track. Success also comes from a team approach. Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products has your back with a team of experts and more than 10 years of automatic calf feeder research. Find your local specialist to talk about disease prevention for your calves.
Tom Earleywine, Ph.D., is director of nutritional services with Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products. Contact him at TJEarleywine@landolakes.com or (800) 618-6455.