To the casual observer, a healthy group of autofed dairy calves may look like an easy proposition. It’s true that, compared to individually fed calves, there is no need to mix milk; fill, deliver and wash bottles or pails; or bed and clean small spaces in individual pens or hutches.
But Mathew Haan, former Dairy Extension Educator at Pennsylvania State University, said it still takes work to operate that well-oiled machine. Haan, who now works for Organic Valley in Easton, Pa., has visited many autofeeder farms and extensively reviewed research specific to the management system.
“Labor cost and availability are driving interest in group housing and autofeeder systems,” said Haan. “Additionally, there are benefits to animal welfare, disease detection and individual-calf monitoring.”
But the systems definitely are not “labor-free.” Rather, Haan said rearing healthy calves with autofeeders requires the same fundamentals as traditional systems – excellent colostrum delivery; clean, dry bedding; good air quality; and regular health observation.
Plus, autofeeding does not start at Day 1 of life. Haan cited research from 38 autofeeder farms in the upper Midwest that showed the average age calves were transitioned to autofeeders ranged from 5 to 14 days of age. Similarly, a Canadian study showed the average age of autofeeder placement was 5 days. Thus, farms utilizing autofeeders still need housing and dedicated management for individual-calf care.
Additionally, calves require individual training to locate the autofeeder nipple and establish a feeding routine. According to an informative video training series produced cooperatively by several dairy Extension entities and USDA, that adjustment can take at least a few feedings for every calf.
The video series also emphasized that successful managers of autofeeder systems possess a unique skill set. Among the desirable qualities of a manager of group-housed/autofed-calves are:
- Excellent observation skills
- Attention to detail
- Enjoyment of working with calves
- Ability to interpret and apply data
- Sound decision-making skills; and
- Ability to set and follow management protocols.
It also is critical that all employees who work with the calves are well-trained and compliant with the system’s management protocols.
Another important component of managing autofed calves is reviewing the individual-calf data that is regularly reported by the systems. Reduced drinking speed and/or a decline in visits to the autofeeder could signal a sick calf. A large number of unrewarded visits may indicate a need to change an individual animal’s milk allocation.
Routine equipment cleaning and sanitation also are imperative to successful use of autofeeders. In the Extension video series, 3-times-a-day cleaning of the autofeeder unit’s mixer, heater and exchanger was recommended, as was once-daily circuit cleaning. Feeding hoses and nipples need to be replaced at least bi-weekly, with some farms preferring to do this as frequently as every day. And a regular maintenance schedule also is necessary for checking and replacing other elements, such as water filters, diaphragms, fittings and soap/sanitizer transfer hoses.
Regular pen cleaning and bedding changes also are essential, as is daily air-quality control that may require adjusting curtains and changing fan operations. Fortunately, group pens generally make these tasks easier and quicker to accomplish than individual calf-housing systems.
“The fundamentals of calf care do not change in group housing and autofeeder systems, and the total time spent managing them usually doesn’t either,” said Haan. “The upside is that management time is more flexible and data-driven, with less time spent on physical labor but more on monitoring and decision-making. In general, this leaves most herds that have adopted autofeeder systems very satisfied with their investment from a personnel standpoint.”