Automatic Calf Feeding Systems for Pre-weaned Dairy Calves

Computer controlled automatic calf feeding systems are attracting increasing interest here in the Midwest because of the labor-saving benefits, explains Jim Paulson, Extension Educator-Dairy.
calendar icon 7 August 2009
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Automatic calf feeders consist of a self-contained unit that heats the water, dispenses a programmed amount of milk replacer, and mixes the milk replacer and water in a container from which the calf can suck it out via a nipple feeding station.

A single programmable feeding unit with two nipple feeding stations will cost approximately $18,000 to $22,000. A computer and program with more feeding options and capabilities will cost an additional $4,000. Individual feeding stations that dispense and monitor calf starter consumption will run approximately $5,000 per station.

What is the payback for such a system? Let us assume we have a computer program feeder and two nipple feeding stations that cost a total of $22,000. A system of this type would provide the capability of feeding two pens of 25 calves per pen for up to 10 weeks. Keep in mind, it is still necessary to feed calves by bottle for the first 7 to 10 days in individual pens to get them adapted to nipple feeding. It has been observed that calves will spend 30 to 50 minutes per day at the feeding station. If we expect to move calves out after 70 days of age, that’s an average of 60 days in the feeding pen. If we wean by day 56 with calf starter consumption of 2 to 3 lb per day, this would allow six groups of 25 calves per pen per year with two pens for a total of 300 calves on the feeder per year. Therefore, the cost of the computer programmed calf feeder system would be calculated as follows: $22,000 divided by 5 years depreciation = $4,400 per year, divided by 300 calves per year = $14.66 per head feeder cost.

Building cost is independent of the way we are feeding the calves, whether it is with bottles, buckets or the computer feeder. Very likely the investment would be higher with individual pens but less with outside hutches over a 5 year period. In a loose housing system, calves require 30 to 35 square feet per head. A building with a 10 year life will currently run about $40 to $45 per calf per year. Hutches with an initial cost of $350 and a 5 year life would cost $17.50 per calf per year. While labor time and cost is reduced with the automatic feeding system, it is not eliminated. Feeders and calves need to be checked daily, pens bedded, and the feeding system refilled.

Using a computer feeder more easily allows increased number of feedings and amount fed per day compared to feeding individually. This was investigated by Danish researcher M.B. Jensen during the whole period calves were on milk. He found it was better to reduce the number of feedings per day rather than the amount per feeding. This feeding strategy resulted in a greater amount of starter consumed before weaning and less total time spent in the feeding station.

When a computer controlled automatic feeding system is used, usually calves are fed 0.5 to 2.0 liters (0.53 to 2.11 quarts) per feeding over 4 to 8 feedings per day. Several studies indicated where calves were offered many small portions, there were a higher number of unrewarded visits (calves cannot receive any milk) to the station. More visits increased the total amount of time calves occupied the milk feeding stations and increased the amount of observed cross-sucking done by calves. This problem is further exasperated by an increasing number of calves per feeding station. Calves were satisfied with 5 to 6 feedings per day, reducing the number of unrewarded visits per day by one half. Therefore, Jensen concluded that the appropriate number of portions fed per day may depend on the total volume fed per calf per day.

Individual feeding of calves in a single pen or hutch allows for easier observation of calf health and milk consumption. There is a concern of disease detection in group raised calves. Automatic computer controlled feeders can easily monitor milk intake of individual calves and provide alarm lists for calves that fall outside set parameters. Additionally, the automatic feeder can monitor the number of visits, number of unrewarded and rewarded visits as well as the rate of milk consumption. Svensson and Jensen found the most reliable indicator of calf health to be the number of unrewarded visits to the feeding station. These visits are more sensitive than the amount consumed per day and consumption rate. More visits tend to indicate a more active calf.

Automated calf feeders offer the opportunity to raise pre-weaned dairy calves with less manual labor than traditional systems while still providing full growth potential. Payback on calf feeding systems depends on number of animals to be fed per year as well as labor costs and availability.

July 2009

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