Machine-rearing calves is becoming increasingly popular on dairy farms where labour levels are under pressure and money is tight, but does it really deliver all it promises?

According to a study undertaken by Simon Marsh at Harper Adams University College, machine feeding can cut labour demand by more than half and could mean the expense of purchasing a £3000 feeder could be recouped by rearing just 223 calves.

In the study 36 Holstein Freisian bull calves were split into two groups and reared either on a computerised machine or by traditional bucket rearing and calves. From five days old to weaning at 42 days old calves bucket reared were individually housed and fed twice daily on a whey-based milk replacer at four litres/day from day five to seven and five litres a day from days eight to 28. From day 28 to weaning the milk rate was gradually reduced.

Calves on the computerised feeding system were group-housed and were fed at similar levels, and all calves were offered concentrate and water ad-lib from day four onwards.

Time spent attending each calf for feeding bedding and checking was 152 and 71min from start to weaning for the bucket-reared calves and machine systems respectively, explained Mr Marsh. “When labour is valued at £10 an hour this costs £25.34 and £11.90 a calf – a reduction of £13.44 in rearing costs for the machine-fed calves.”

Meanwhile, there were significant behaviour differences in the two groups of calves too, he said. “Bucket-reared calves recorded significantly higher incidence of looking and restlessness compared to machine-reared calves, possibly indicating that machine-reared calves were more content.”

However, there was virtually no difference in live weight gain, feed intake or calf health between the two groups. Both groups averaged just 1kg difference in weaning weight, with bucket-reared calves averaging 61.6kg compared to 62.7kg for machine-reared calves.