While the majority of U.S. dairy calves still are fed individually, there are now enough farms using autofeeders to create some critical mass that can be studied on a large scale.
At the University of Minnesota, Professor of Dairy Cattle Production Marcia Endres has led a team of researchers that recently wrapped up an 18-month study of Midwestern farms using autofeeders. In total, they evaluated more than 10,000 calves on 38 farms. What did they learn that can be of help to other operations? Some important lessons:
1. Peak milk allowance matters
Many hutch-housed calves still are fed 1.0 to 1.5 gallons of milk via bottle twice a day. One of the key advantages of autofeeders is that they allow a farm to more closely mimic natural consumption habits, feeding on milk or milk replacer several times around the clock. Most farms in the study started calves at about 5.5 liters of milk per day, similar to individual-calf-feeding systems. But by 10 to14 days, they were feeding an average of 8.2 liters per day for about 20 to 25 days, then stepping gradually down to weaning.
A key finding regarding peak milk was that speed to achieving peak milk consumption was directly correlated to health challenges. Those farms that had higher numbers of health incidents also took longer to get calves to peak milk consumption. “It appears that in the group setting, that extra nutrition is important to supporting immunity and keeping calves thriving,” said Endres.
2. “Autofed” does not mean “autopilot”
While the desire to spend less time doing menial, monotonous tasks was cited as the number-one reason why farms chose to switch to autofeeders, Endres cautioned that such systems are neither labor- nor maintenance-free.
“While the computer information supplied by the feeders is very helpful, it must be reviewed regularly, and calves still have to be observed visually,” she said. “The most successful calf managers recognize subtleties in behavior before they show up on the computer. They can spot calves just starting to get sick, or those that haven’t quite figured out how to get to and use the feeding station.”
Equipment sanitation also showed significant disparities between farms. The Minnesota researchers used a threshold of 100,000 cells/mL standard plate count (SPC) to indicate successful sanitation of key equipment pieces, including nipples, hoses and mixing vats on the machines. The top 5 farms had a mean SPC of 87,590 cells/mL, while the bottom 5 had a mean SPC of a whopping 21,140,625.
“We’ve had farms report that their calves were doing great when they initially switched to the autofeeder, then gradually went downhill. This probably explains why,” said Endres. She noted that, regardless of model, autofeeders have automated wash cycles that must be run routinely; parts that must be cleaned manually; and hoses that need to be replaced regularly because they can be hard to clean effectively. “The farms with the lowest counts were changing and sanitizing nipples once or twice a day,” she added.
3. You don’t have to build a new barn
While new construction might be everyone’s choice in a perfect world, 61% of the calves in the study actually were being reared in retrofitted barns. Endres said existing structures can be successfully converted to autofeeding pens, as long as standards for resting space; clean, dry bedding; excellent ventilation; and access to the autofeeder, starter grain and fresh water are met.
“For both the physical environment and the feeding equipment, our three take-away tips for success are ‘Clean!, Clean!!, and Clean!!!’” concluded Endres.