Over the last few months, I have had several inquiries about automated calf feeders and their true value to calf producers. Many of the auto calf feeder companies market these units as saving 10 minutes per calf, as that’s the average amount of time it takes to mix replacer, feed the calf, and wash equipment. Along with that advantage, we can increase the amount of milk given to calves, provide more calories, and increase our average daily gain.

However, as with any management change, there is a flipside to every coin. You should know that there are additional cleaning and maintenance tasks which need to be performed daily if these machines are to work successfully. Below I’ve summarized the quick version of what you should expect when starting to use an automated calf feeder.

1. Do not plan to overcrowd the pen. The more calves that are in the pen, the more likely you are to have disease within the pen and spread it amongst the group. Sheila McGuirk, a veterinarian from UW Madison, recommends less than 12 calves per pen to minimize disease spread and competition at the feeder.

2. Plan to have an all in-all out group. Calf entries into a pen that occur over 5 days are much more likely to incur disease as you continue to introduce susceptible calves to keep the cycle of infection spreading.

3. Plan to delegate regular cleaning and monitoring tasks to an employee or do this yourself. You should expect to clean and sanitize nipples multiple times per day. Plan to replace nipples many times per week. Regular cleaning of the mixing bowl also needs to happen. You and your veterinarian need to monitor bacterial growth in tubing and replace it regularly. Also, you and your veterinarian need to discuss how and at what frequency to monitor total solids of your milk replacer. This validates that your machine is working correctly.

4. Plan to feed calves for at least 3 days prior to entry onto an automated calf feeder. Very young calves have a hard time making it to the feeder for regular feedings, even if calves are healthy and normal. Additionally, if you seem to have a tremendous scour or respiratory issue already, you may decide to wait to put calves onto the feeder until you are well passed that time in the feeding period. That way, you can keep calves individually housed until the risk of spreading disease to other individuals is lower.

If you are interested in making the transition to automated calf feeders or are already there but would like help dialing in management for premier performance, don’t be afraid to contact us for help: 1-800-552-3276.

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