Autofeeders: Three calf managers share their experiences

This is the second in a two-part series on automated calf-feeding systems. To read Part 1 ("Autofeeders: How are they working?" from the July 2014 issue of Dairy Herd Management) click here.

Jeanne Wormuth is one of the most experienced managers of calves on autofeeders in the United States. She became interested in autofeeding after seeing the excellent performance Canadian-based Grober, Inc., was achieving with bull calves for veal.

Autofeeders: Three calf managers share their experiences"When I saw what they were able to do with sale barn calves of unknown colostrum status, I thought, ‘this has to have potential for replacement heifer calves, too,"" she said.

Wormuth manages CY Heifer Farm, Inc. of Elba, N.Y. CY Heifer Farm has been using autofeeders for more than six years, purchasing used Förster-Technik machines from Canada.

The transition required retrofitting four, 48" X 68", greenhousestyle barns to group housing.

"We started with one barn, and everyone on our crew loved it," said Wormuth. "All four barns now are converted, and we've been able to eliminate the additional 200 hutches we had outside."

Ventilating the barns has been the biggest challenge. Shade cloth under the rafters makes tube ventilation impossible, but four large fans have been added to each building. They also constructed an insulated and heated "kitchen" in each building that houses the autofeeder machines, which must be protected from freezing.

While Wormuth and her staff don't spend time making and washing bottles anymore, equipment maintenance is part of their daily routine.

"We wipe down the machines every day, calibrate milk replacer daily and water once a week," said Wormuth, stressing the need to carefully monitor machine operation. "We change hoses every time a pen is weaned, and we occasionally have to change a pump or a heating element."

"A malfunctioning machine – even for a short time – can really mess up a group of calves," she said. "Fortunately, there never has been a breakdown that we couldn't fix."

Easing the transition to weaning is one of the benefits Wormuth appreciates the most. Calves stay in their feeding groups of 20 to 25 for one week after weaning, then are moved to smaller weaning groups of eight to 10 calves each.

"Weaning is such a stressful time, but I think it's much better for us now," said Wormuth. "By the time calves are weaned, they are bigger and stronger, plus they know how to use an automatic waterer and put their heads through a feeding headlock to eat grain."

CY Heifer Farm feeds all milk replacer; 24:24 milk replacer through New York's frigid winters; and a 24:20 formulation in the summer. Calves are started on the autofeeders at two to seven days of age. Intake rises from 5.5 liters to 8 liters by two weeks of age, continuing to 44 days of age. Then the machine steps replacer down over 12 days. The milk replacer diet is supplemented with a 21% protein, pelleted starter grain.

With the increase in nutrients and frequency of feedings, average daily gain from birth to weaning has increased from about 1.2 pounds per day, to 1.6 pounds per day now. "It's like revving up an engine," said Wormuth. "Once they get going, their gain just takes off. We sometimes have calves gaining 2.4 pounds per day in the weaning barn. You almost have to pull them back."

As weaned calves are moved out, every group pen is thoroughly cleaned out, power-washed, sanitized and re-bedded with a fresh base of wood shavings topped with straw. "We can't control what pathogens calves might bring with them, but we can control our environment," stated Wormuth.

Growing healthy babies

Autofeeders: Three calf managers share their experiencesDebbie Feldpausch is so passionate about raising calves that her e-mail address starts with the handle, "calfnanny." She and her husband, John, operate Son Rise Farms, Inc. near Westphalia, Mich., where 280 custom-raised calves are reared on autofeeders at any given time. To Debbie, the feeding system provides calves with the nutrition they deserve.

"Calves are babies, and to grow and stay healthy, they need to be able to eat basically all they want in their early days," she said.

The Feldpauschs have achieved their initial goal of reducing hired labor since they adopted their GEA autofeeding system in 2010. Before that purchase, they had 11 part-time and full-time employees in addition to themselves. Today, they are raising the same number of calves with the help of just four full-time employees.

They value the system even more for calf performance.

"We never were able to consistently double their birth weights by weaning age when we were doing manual feeding," said John. Since moving to autofeeders, they averaged 1.65 pounds of daily gain at 57 days of age on more than 6,500 calves.

While they had the advantage of new facilities when they started using autofeeders, the transition was not perfect.

"We had some serious respiratory issues at first and thought we were going to have to make some major changes to the building, at an estimated cost of $180,000," said John. "I decided to ramp up our straw bedding first, and we went from nearly catastrophic respiratory problems to virtually none. We now often go three to four weeks without treating a calf for pneumonia."

Another disease-prevention measure they follow is changing plastic feeding lines every two weeks. At 23 cents per foot – and just 75 minutes of labor time – they think it's an easy investment decision.

Calves stay on individual feeding until about 14 days of age, but then accelerate quickly – to 10 liters of 28:20 milk replacer per day – within four days of entry to the autofeeder pens. Peak feeding is maintained for 25 days, followed by a 21-day gradual step-down to weaning.

John said dropping the peak feeding level to 8 liters per day has proven unsuccessful.

"We saw lots of crowding, bullying and wetness around the feeding stations at that lower level," he said. "We've also learned that calves like to have a full tummy in the morning, because they don't eat as much overnight." As a result, they now dial up their feeders to allow 3 liters in the first, six-hour feeding window in the morning.

Provided everything is working correctly, that level of satisfaction creates what Debbie calls a "milk coma" in the calves. "They don't bawl, they don't fight, they just want to lie down and go to sleep," she said. "Just like babies, calves do a lot of growing when they're sleeping."

For John and Debbie, it's a more relaxed lifestyle, too. "It's still important for us to be out among the calves and observing them frequently, but we are not tied up with the manual chores and labor management," said John. "We drink a lot of coffee while watching our calves."

A system that works

Autofeeders: Three calf managers share their experiences"We thought we'd built the perfect building," said Bruce Telleen about his farm's new calf barn, erected in 2010. As it turned out, the system needed a little post-construction tweaking, but the Monticello, Iowa dairyman has no regrets about switching to group housing and autofeeding his calves.

Telleen operates Fanfare Farm, a 200-cow Holstein and Brown Swiss enterprise, with his wife, Jani, and son and daughter-in- law, Klark and Brittney. They also run a custom chopping and baling business.

To get away from winter snowbanks and summer flies, they looked at indoor housing options, and were impressed with autofeeder results they saw others achieving.

"The individual pen systems were going to be quite an investment, and not as easy to clean and manage compared to group pens," said Klark. "Plus, it's challenging to find hired help to manage calves with care and consistency. We liked the builtin regularity that switching to autofeeding would provide."

The Telleens" 62" by 82" calf barn is divided into four group pens with a central grain feeding alley. It features curtained sidewalls on the east and west. An insulated control room contains the DeLaval autofeeder; computer system; and wash station between the two milk-feeding pens. Ten solid-sided, individual stalls just outside the control room house newborn baby calves, where they are trained on individual bottles. They stay there until they are drinking aggressively enough to enter the first group pen, usually at 5 to 7 days of age.

The autofeeder pens are stocked by age – a starter pen for calves up to 30 days old; and a pre-weaned pen for calves 30 to 60 days of age. The other two pens on the opposite side of the building house weaned animals. Calves progress through the pens as they grow, exiting the building at about 300 pounds.

After experiencing respiratory problems the first winter, facility changes included installing two positive-pressure ventilation tubes with fans, which run east to west. They retrofitted exhaust hoods to the existing fans on the north side of the building to pull air from the level of the calves. To free up more space in the group pens, which typically now hold about 12 to 15 calves, the Telleens now sell bull calves at a few days of age. And, they are more vigilant about moving the largest weaned heifers out of the building.

Finally, they changed their initial plan to use a bedded manure pack. "That system can work really well for older animals, but not for baby calves," said Klark. "We learned the pens have to be cleaned out a lot more frequently – at least once a month -- with excellent bedding in between."

Today, peak consumption allows calves up to 8.5 liters of 25:20 milk replacer per day.

Klark said that in terms of actual time spent caring for calves in the new system, it's about the same as when they were in hutches.

"The difference is that we are working in a much more pleasant environment, the management time is more flexible, and we have improved calf growth and performance," he said. "They are our future herd replacements, so that really is the most important point of all."

Click here to read our autofeeder "must do" management recommendations and pointers from industry experts.