Whether conventional or organic, raising replacement dairy heifers is an expensive investment for a dairy operation. The nutrition, health, and management of replacement heifer calves may have a major impact on the profitability of the entire dairy operation. Organic producers, especially, may be faced with challenges such as higher feed costs and maintaining animal health. As the use of group housing for pre-weaned dairy calves has increased, automatic calf feeders have gained popularity. There are many advantages to utilizing automatic calf feeders in a group housing system such as accessibility to different feed programs, reduced labor, consistent hygiene, individual calf monitoring and socialization benefits for the calf.
The WCROC's Automated Calf Feeding System
At the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) in Morris, MN, researchers have utilized and tested an automatic feeding system since 2017. The dairy herd at the WCROC is comprised of 300 milking cows, and the herd raises about 125 heifer calves each year. Heifer calves born at the WCROC are raised organically and housed in groups. At the WCROC, 40 calves are fed with a Holm & Laue (HL) HL100 Programmable Calf Feeder (Holm & Laue GmbH & Co KG, Westerronfeld, Germany). The HygieneStations are equipped with a forefoot weigh scale.
At the WCROC, organic whole milk was pasteurized and transported to the calf facility using a Holm & Laue Milk Taxi 260L where it was stored in a Milk Jug cooling tank (Calf-Star LLC, New Franken, WI). At 5 days of age, calves were fitted with an RFID tag for the autofeeder to identify each calf. Calves were then moved into a pen for 20 calves and were acclimated to the autofeeder.
Calves had an 8 L daily allotment of milk in 2 L increments. From 5 to 11 days of age, calves were “ramped-up” from 6 L to 8 L of milk per day. From 12 to 49 days, calves were fed on a “hold” program of 8 L of milk per day. From 50 days to weaning at 56 days, calves were on a “ramp down” program, which gradually reduced the milk allotment by 0.2 L per day to prepare them for weaning and encourage calf starter consumption.
The HL feeder at the WCROC allowed for consistent hygiene of the feeding system. After each calf visited the HygieneStation and consumed their allotment, the mixing bowl was rinsed and drained, the tubing to the nipple was rinsed, and the nipple was rinsed with a combination of water and hydrogen peroxide. Furthermore, the feeder was programmed to conduct a whole system wash cycle automatically three times per day.
The CalfGuide system at the WCROC has the ability to observe and download individual calf data. The data include drinking speed, visits to the HygieneStation, consumption of milk or milk replacer, and calf body weight. The HL feeder monitors individual calves and issues alarms on calves that have not been drinking milk allotments. This is of extreme importance for monitoring calf health and determining which calves require further observation and care.
Group-housed automatic calf feeding systems, whether in conventional or organic systems, allow for consistent and effective hygiene procedures, individualized calf monitoring, and social benefits for calves. Furthermore, labor may be reduced or reallocated to other areas of calf management to ensure the success of the calf program.