Innovation: Calf feeding management turns to automation

By Susan Harlow

Automated calf feeders save labor, but they have other benefits as well.

Jeanne Wormuth, manager of CY Heifer Farms in Elba, N.Y., purchased automated calf feeders two years ago after seeing how veal calves thrived on the feeders. She hoped her dairy calves would do just as well.

Cy Heifer Farms, owned by Craig Yunker, had teamed up with a veal operation five years ago. “They brought in calves from auctions and they were doing great,” Wormuth said. “We were saying – how come heifer calves can’t do great, just like those calves from an auction?”

She’s found her dairy calves have done well on automated feeders. And Wormuth discovered several other benefits to the feeders, including cost savings. “There are very few things you can cut out,” she said. “Everyone wants top quality but at a good price. Since the quality is there, this was a chance to be more efficient.”

Wormuth will talk about using automated feeders to manage calves at a Dairy Profit Seminar on raising calves, Tues., Aug. 10, at Empire Farm Days in Seneca Falls, N.Y.

CY raises 4,000 head of calves for 10 dairies in western New York. Three of the four barns have been converted to Forster Technik automatic feeders. Each machine feeds 50 calves in the 100-calf barns, and costs between $25,000 and $30,000.

Calf health has remained steady, improving in some instances, in the barns with automated feeders. Wormuth can regulate water and milk replacer intake for scoury calves, and a calf can eat when she feels like it. “Before, if a calf wasn’t feeling good at mealtime, she didn’t eat. Now she can consume any time and a lot more.”

In the computerized system, each calf is fitted with an RFID button in her ear. When she steps up to a feeder, the computer mixes her a precalculated amount of high-protein 26-17 milk replacer.

Each new calf is allowed to eat 2.5 liters at a standing, which increases to 3 liters after a week. “She can eat as often as she wants but no more than three liters at a standing,” Wormuth said. That gradually increases to 8 liters daily until she’s ready to wean, then it drops back to one liter per day.

The feeder’s computer tracks how much each calf eats and when, and can generate a daily report of a calf’s eating activity.

Each group of new calves has 25 calves in it. Starting the second week, they have access to a trough of starter grain and begin to get used to sharing their feeding space. “They have to learn to belly up,” Wormuth said. “They’re never going to eat alone; they need to start some competition. It helps a lot in transition, because they’re used to trough feeding and using the same waterers by then.”

Calves begin eating starter grain about the same as in individual pens, “but they seem to peak higher before they move to the weaning barn,” Wormuth said.

They are weaned at 35 days. Weaning is much easier with automated calf feeders, Wormuth discovered. “They used to cry for days because it was an abrupt stop to milk. With the machines, it gradually takes them down the last week.

“They also don’t associate you with milk. They’re very quiet. And they don’t have to meet and greet when they’re weaned, like they do when they come from individual pens. It’s a lot easier. I didn’t know those benefits would come with it.”

Wormuth’s two employees have each been with her more than seven years. They easily learned how to maintain the feeders, cleaning them daily, changing hoses and fixing small computer glitches.

“There are a lot of little time-savers,” Wormuth said. “We don’t have to wash and disinfect each pen.” There are other money-savers, too. Now she buys shavings in bulk and beds with a bucket loader instead of bedding each individual pen using bags of shavings. And there’s a lot less wasted milk replacer.

As Wormuth had hoped, the calves are doing better in groups on feeders than in individual pens – although there’s more to it. “The home farm has a lot of influence on how that calf will perform,” she said. She requires those dairies to feed colostrum and dip navels before they come to CY.

The automated feeder system isn’t perfect. For one thing, it’s more difficult to give calves vaccinations and work on them when they’re in pens. And although the feeders have cut CY’s labor needs almost in half – Wormuth now has two and a half employees instead of four – they don’t eliminate the need for management. The employees walk each pen twice daily to check for weak calves and other problems.

“It’s replacing someone to feed them but you can’t take away the human management side. You still have to be a really good calf person,” Wormuth said. “The machine is just a tool. The key is really good employees.”

The Dairy Profit Seminar: “Strategies to Maximize Calf Health and Performance, will be held Tuesday, Aug. 10. in the Dairy Profit Center on the Empire Farm Days showgrounds, Seneca Falls, N.Y. The free seminar is coordinated by Cornell’s PRO-DAIRY program.

FYI

Empire Farm Days  Dairy Profit Seminars will be offered daily, Aug. 10-12. The line-up was published in the June 2010 issue of Eastern DairyBusiness. For information, visit http://easterndairybusiness.cadmus.com/index.aspx

• For more information on Empire Farms Days, at the Rodman Lott & Son Farms, Seneca Falls, N.Y., visit www.empirefarmdays.com; phone: 877-697-7837 or e-mail: mwickham@empirefarmdays.com.

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