Automatic Calf Feeders: Are they worth the investment?

By Makaila Klejeski
Dairy Production Specialist

The future of the dairy industry is unpredictable. We face new regulations endlessly, markets fluctuate daily, consumer needs change, and technology is continuously changing the way we manage and operate our farms. Charles Darwin has a quote that shines some light on our struggling industry—“It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” In the hardship of dairy farming, it is hard to focus on the benefits of this livelihood. But refer back to Darwin’s quote and replace the word species with the word farmer. “It is not the most intellectual of farmers that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the farmer that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” We must overcome our challenges and adapt to our ever-changing industry.

There are portions of the U.S. dairy producer population that are not a fan of changes within our industry, especially implementing change on their own farm. When they have done things the same way for 40-plus years, and they have not observed any problems, it is difficult to show the value in change. However, it is beneficial to reevaluate your calf and heifer program annually, to ensure you are getting the most out of your youngstock. This includes, but is not limited to, the milk phase, starter diet, grower diet, vaccination protocols, treatment protocols, and even calf housing management. With that being said, there is always the question: what about automatic calf feeders? They are slowly gaining popularity throughout our region, and as dairy prices increase—hopefully soon—I think they will become even more common on local dairies. An automatic calf feeder will change your calf program and management style completely, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When you start to think about adding this type of technology to your farm, there are a few extra questions that you need to ask yourself:

Why do I want to utilize this technology?
If you are just looking to cut back on labor/labor cost, this might not be the best option for you. Automatic calf feeders are not a way to eliminate the labor for the producer, but rather a tool for the producer to become more efficient while increasing productivity and profitability. It is important to understand that these facilities do require strategic management, as you are working with groups of calves rather than each calf individually.

Would we retrofit the current calf barn or build a new one?
Retrofitting a barn can be a great way to save some money upfront, however if it is not done right, it may end up costing you even more money in the long run. You could have increased cost in respiratory treatments, scours, and even bedding.

Do we have room to background calves?
We were always told to keep calves from touching noses to reduce the spread of disease, and now we are putting calves in groups of 15 to 20 animals. Calves are naturally herd animals, so there are benefits to group housing, but a newborn calf does not have the immunity it needs to fight off disease easily. Therefore, backgrounding your calves in individual pens for a predetermined period will make the transition to an automatic feeder easier for you and the calf. This will allow them to build up the immunity and strength to handle being in a group.

Will we have enough calves born within the same time to fill a pen?
Having a group of calves, with less than a two-week spread, in one pen is ideal. If you have 10 calves started on the auto feeder, you do not want to keep adding calves to the pen throughout a prolonged period. This will cause an upset in the current calves and could result in an increased number of sick calves. This will also help in assuring that calves are close to the same size to avoid any “weak” calves in the group.

Do I have a nutritionist to work with?
The company that installs your automatic calf feeders generally does not have a background in calf nutrition. It is important to have a calf specialist on the farm to help determine the feeding presets and walk through calves to make sure the feeding program is right for your operation. It is also beneficial to monitor weights and calf health through the early stages of this transition process.
Every farm is different. What works for one farm, may not work as well for yours. There is definitely a learning curve associated with this developing method of calf-raising, but with the right help, it is worth your while to invest in the technologies that will advance your herd. When deciding if an automatic calf feeder is right for your farm, it is important to do your research, speak with a variety of people from the industry, and even tour a few automatic calf feeder facilities in your area.
If you are interested in more information or would like to visit an auto feeder facility, please feel free to reach out to the All American Co-op calf and heifer team!

Makaila Klejeski (507) 676-2316

Kayti Lyseth (320) 385-0699

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