Automated calf feeding is an area that has garnered attention in the last couple of years.
Researchers have looked at the pros and cons of group feeding calves and have found several advantages: Cornell researchers found that a higher level of calves' intake of milk results in a higher first lactation production of milk; Minnesota researchers found higher levels of intake resulted in lower incidences of illness and a lower death rate; and Wisconsin research has shown higher feed efficiency and greater survival of calves when they are fed the same amount of milk each day, three times rather than two times a day.
Stacy Sosinsky is in charge of calves on her family's Hillsboro farm. She went to three-times-a-day feeding in winter in order to help calves maintain their weight and garner sufficient gains. The system worked so well for the calves that when winter was over she decided to continue the practice.
She raises calves in hutches, using about 100 hutches so she can rotate them and leave them empty for a time between calves. She also uses bottles for the Jersey-Holstein crosses because they like to bury their faces in the milk. Other calves are bucket trained.
"We have very healthy calves since switching to feeding three times a day," she said. "It's more time consuming, but they really grow better."
As Sosinsky noted, while feeding three times a day may increase gain on calves, it can take up quite a bit more time.
Jake Peissig of Dorchester went to automated calf feeding when their custom grower went out of business. Rather than buy hutches, they decided to put an automated feeder into an existing barn. It was a labor savor for them, but Jake said it still requires cleaning and routine maintenance.
They installed their system in an older barn on the farm. It works well, but he said ventilation is an important concern.
Heather Hassel works with her family's calf program on her family's Lake Mills farm. She has had success with an automated calf feeding system that was installed in 2011.
The Hassels built a facility with positive pressure tubes, side curtains and 52-inch fans.
They also had an interior wall added between the weaned and non-weaned calves for better climate control, in addition to four sets of curtains so they can better control the two separate areas.
Hassel said this system minimizes problems with pneumonia. When the curtains are closed in winter, the tubes work well, and the air smells fresh.
The calf barn includes a GEA automated calf feeder, and calves are raised in groups rather than individual hutches.
The Hasels raise about 200 calves a year and care for about 60 at any given time.
When the family raised calves in hutches, they faced challenges with snow removal and feeding in inclement weather. It was also difficult to keep fresh grain and water available to them at all times.
Their system consists of eight individual pens and two group pens. Each group pen can hold up to 30 calves, and they can eat whenever they choose. Once weaned, the calves are moved to the other end of the building, which is divided into four group pens with a maximum of 15 animals per pen.
"When we switched to this system we saved on labor, Hassel said, "but we also found the calves are better managed by an individual, and issues that arise are caught sooner.
"By monitoring the reports on the computer, we know drinking speeds and frequency to see if their drinking behavior has changed. That allows us to catch any problems sooner."
They have been monitoring the weight gain and hip measurements from birth to six months and have noticed, since the system was put into use nearly three years ago, a significant improvement in the size of the animals.
Calves are put on the automated feeders when they are three days old. They feed up to 1.8 gallons of milk replacer per calf per day.
"Our average daily gain has been about two pounds a day, and the calves seem to have more stature," she said.
While the calves still require labor, Hassel said the system allows her time to pay more attention to details; concentrate on keeping bedding dry and clean; and provide free-choice water and grain at all times.
They initially were concerned about calves sucking or spreading germs in the manure, but they have found when calves want to suck, they go to the machine to get milk. Because they are eating smaller amounts at a time more times a day, their manure is not loose.
Dr. Robert James of Virginia Tech said automated calf feeding systems like this will work well if the person in charge thoroughly understands the system in order to make best use of the data available.
"If you thought an automated system will mean you can leave calves alone, you will not be happy," he said. "If you hate computers and technology, don't use this system."
Other considerations regarding the equipment include the machine's ability to use whole or waste milk and milk replacer or to supplement whole milk.
Sanitation is a concern, and machines need to be on a regular maintenance schedule.