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A precision dairy technology: Automated calf feeders

Marcia Endres
Extension Dairy Scientist

May 12, 2012

Traditionally, calves are housed in individual pens or hutches until after weaning. However, interest in automated calf feeders used to feed calves in groups has been growing in the U.S. Automated calf feeding systems allow calves to interact with each other in a group setting and drink milk many times a day while reducing labor. There is very limited research in the U.S. on best housing, ventilation and management practices to be used with these feeders.

Individual calf housing can have advantages for animal welfare, such as the reduced transmission of infectious diseases as a result of limited physical contact between calves. In addition, individually housed calves are easier to observe which can result in more effective disease treatment. There also is less competition for food between calves with individual housing. However, there are also potential welfare disadvantages with individual housing. The most obvious ones are the lack of social contact among calves and the limitation of movement by the reduced physical space provided. In addition, individually housed calves are usually fed only twice a day.

Automated feeders can provide pre-weaned calves either cow's milk or milk replacer and water individually in a controlled manner. Calves are housed in a group and identified using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. A processor integrated into the feeder ensures that the milk quantity is allocated according to prescribed parameters, such as age, and dispensed over several feedings per day. The milk replacer concentration, feed quantity per visit, and total feed allocation per day can automatically adjust to the calves' physiological development or age. Cow's milk alone or combinations of cow's milk and milk replacer can also be fed, dispensed and adjusted according to a predefined plan. Weaning can be done automatically and gradually according to age or intake of solid food.

Feeding group-housed calves on an automated milk feeding system was shown by Canadian researchers to require less labor than when calves are housed individually, helping offset the initial investment cost of the machines. Another advantage of using the automated system compared to manually feeding calves twice a day is that the feeders allow for distribution of the total daily milk intake into small meals throughout the day, with no extra labor input, allowing a greater amount of milk to be fed without requiring the calf to drink a large amount at each meal. These automated systems also can monitor the feeding behavior of each calf, such as number and timing of visits, the amount of milk consumed by each calf, and the number of unrewarded visits (when no milk is fed), which has been shown in research studies to help identify sick calves.

Dairy producers are interested in purchasing automated calf feeders mostly because of labor savings, but the ability to feed calves many times a day, a more natural behavior, is also an advantage. Our research team is planning to collect data from many operations using automated feeders to document labor costs. It is possible that labor time is not necessarily reduced, but the type of labor changes. Calves still need to be observed, pens cleaned, equipment sanitized, etc. However, it would be very labor intensive to feed calves 6 to 8 times a day without automation.

Efficiency of automated feeders can be improved if the amount of time that each calf spends at the feeder in visits when it is not entitled to be fed is reduced. Studies have shown that feeding larger amounts of milk reduces the number of these unrewarded visits. In addition, it was shown that automated feeding systems need to be managed properly to avoid competition. Potential strategies would be to keep group sizes relatively small, to properly introduce new calves to the group with adequate training, and to feed higher quantities of milk. Are any of these strategies being successfully used on farms with automated calf feeders in the upper Midwest of the U.S.? No research has been done in our region, so we plan to conduct a study to learn what strategies are most common and effective in typical Midwest herds. Automated calf feeders and the housing facilities where they are used represent a new technology that needs study in order to understand housing and management characteristics that enhance calf welfare and dairy operation profitability.

The goal of our project is to learn best practices to optimize the utilization of automated calf feeders. We expect to start on-farm data collection this summer/early fall. It will be a long-term project, but we will learn as data are collected, and share with collaborators any insights that we gather along the way. I thank the producers who indicated to me or my research colleagues their willingness to participate in our study.

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