Automated Calf Feeding Systems (Part 1): Deciding If It Fits Your Operation

By Rodney Dennis, Ph.D., Dairy Nutritionist/Calf Specialist

The use of automated calf feeding systems has increased in recent years. Many producers have successfully used these systems with labor savings and other benefits. The successful use of these systems requires a refocus on management. If one is considering purchasing an automated calf feeding system, careful consideration must be given to what the economic and other benefits will be as well as the challenges of such a system for their operation.

This Dairy Nutrition Notes will cover the considerations to make before purchasing an automated system and some of the frustrations users have reported. Part 2 will be a review of the tips for successful operation of an automated feeding system.

Areas that should be given close consideration before a decision is made to go to an automated calf feeding system include:

  • What are the calf program goals and how will an automated feeding system help achieve those goals?
  • What is the current labor situation and how will workers be trained to use the new system?
  • Will enough calves be produced to pay for the investment in a reasonable amount of time?
  • What is the calf flow? Will the calf flow rate fit with the rotation of calves in the new system?
  • What are the current calf facilities? Automated calf feeding systems must be housed inside to avoid freezing of lines and require grouping of calves. Will this require renovation of current facilities or will new facilities have to be built?
  • Proximity of service technicians and repair parts for the system.
  • Will your current nutrition program fit the new system?
  • How will you monitor calf health and performance on the new system compared to current monitoring system?

Along with the above points, it is also worthwhile to consider some of the frustrations current users have reported with automated calf feeding systems.

  • Labor savings may not be as great as anticipated due to:
    • labor required to train calves to use the system
    • treating calves is more intensive than in individual hutches
    • sanitation labor for cleaning equipment and bedding
  • Calves must be conventionally fed the first 1-2 weeks while training them to use the automated system.
  • Hot water settings are temperamental and need to be checked with a thermometer at least once a week.
  • A high-quality milk replacer that will flow easily in the milk replacer hopper and avoid tunneling must be used.
  • The lines delivering milk replacer to the nipple must be maintained and cleaned daily. In hot weather, lines must be cleaned frequently throughout the day to avoid solids build up. In cold weather, ice may develop in the lines especially if calves have not used the nipple for a period of time.
  • Nipples and delivery lines must be routinely replaced.
  • Power outages are bad and will require hand feeding of calves during the outage unless there is a backup generator.
  • Ventilation must be adequate for the housing area to control respiratory disorders.
  • These are some of the considerations and challenges to be evaluated if one is considering an automated calf feeding system. Part 2 will share some of the management practices that have made for successful use of an automated system.