Everything you need to know about automatic calf feeders

Many dairy farmers and calf rearers are moving to automatic milk feeders to reduce labour input.

We look at what kind of management they require, how to get the best out of them and what to consider before opting for an automatic system.

Tim Potter, vet and youngstock consultant for Westpoint Farm Vets, answers some of the key questions:

How often should they be calibrated?

Issues with calibration can result in calves being underfed or overfed and variations in the concentration of the milk being produced can have a negative effect on the health and performance of the calf.

I would recommend that the milk machines are calibrated at least weekly and also whenever there is a change in batches of milk powder. It is also important that you have a properly agreed feed plan to ensure consistency.

How often should they be cleaned?

Good hygiene is one of the cornerstones of calf rearing and it is essential that milk machines are kept clean to minimise bacterial contamination of the milk and reduce the chance of disease.

The majority of systems will have an in-built cleaning cycle that should be set to run at least three times a day, as this has been shown to reduce the risk of diarrheoa when compared to running it only once or twice a day.

In addition, the machine will require regular manual cleaning which should be done at least weekly, with a full clean, including all the milk lines and other components, being carried out between every batch of calves.

See also: Rethinking cattle performance – Improving dairy beef management

How often should the teats be swapped?

Teats are the point that all calves come into contact with and must be maintained. Damaged or worn teats should be replaced immediately as they can disrupt milk flow and also act as a place where bacteria can build up.

I recommend that units have two sets of teats operating at any one time, this allows them to be swapped every 12 hours; so that one set is being cleaned and disinfected while the other is on the machine. 

How often do you need to check calves are drinking?

The computerised systems with EID will tell you when calves have not fed, along with details of things such as drink speed etc.

It is important to remember that machines do not take the place of good stockmanship and the calves should be regularly checked through the day to ensure that they are taking at least two feeds a day.

Most people will work on a morning and evening check, with additional checks through the day if there are any concerns. 

How do you get calves to take to the feeder and coax them to drink? 

It is important that the calves do not develop any negative associations with the feeders, so when trying to coax them to feed, patience is going to be key and the calf must be led to the machine carefully and calmly.

Once in the station, a number of the systems have a training button, which will ensure milk flow and can be useful in getting animals used to the teat.

Where should they be located?

Location needs to work for both the calf and the farm staff. The machines need to be sited where they can easily be worked on (cleaned and filled up etc).

The key thing to remember about milk machines is that there will be a lot of liquid around them, from the machines themselves but also from the calves urinating and defecating. Therefore, it is essential to have good drainage from the area around them.

I recommend that they are located at the front of the pens on hardstanding, away from the bedded area, ensuring that any liquid will drain away from the beds.

How many calves can a machine feed?

The number of calves that can be fed by a single machine will depend on the type of machine and the set-up. In terms of group size, the optimum is often quoted as being 12-15 calves per pen on one feed station.

I work with a number of producers that will be successfully managing 30 calves per pen, which would be the maximum per one feed-station – this requires a high level of attention to detail.

What are the most common problems with them?

Like other aspects of calf rearing, issues often arise when the attention to detail is lacking. Failure to maintain a proper cleaning schedule can result in disease outbreaks, and worn and damaged teats can result in conditions such as bloat.

The biggest mistake I find is that people view the machine as an alternative to spending time with their calves.

The machines can make feeding easier and more time-efficient, but it is essential that you still observe the calves for signs of disease and any problems and do not simply rely on automated alarms.

It is also important to be mindful of the weather – for example issues with pipes freezing in the cold weather – so make sure you have contingency plans in place and think about how you can protect the machine and the pipes from the cold.

See also: Video – how to use a refractometer to test colostrum quality

Are there any particular aspects that are must-haves or that people should avoid when buying them? What questions should farmers ask when considering a machine?

It is important to have the right number of feed stations for the number of calves you want to feed.

Also think about how the feed stations are going to be sited, what is the longest distance milk is going to have to travel to get from the machine to the calf? If the calf is going to have to work too hard to draw milk through the pipes you may need additional pumps to aid feeding.

These machines are a considerable investment and they need to work for your system.

I would also always ask about training and support – the new computerised systems have a lot of different functions, so it is important you know how to use them and also have the back up in place if a system breaks down.

Is there any technology you can run alongside to help collect data?

Computerised systems linked to EIDs will already be collecting information on milk intakes and drink speeds etc.

The addition of weigh cells in the feed stations can be very useful to monitor calf growth rates as they provide a weight every time the calf feeds, thus avoiding any additional stress of handling to weigh the calves.