While dairymen traditionally have been tied to the farm to feed and milk the animals at regular intervals, the newest technology allows dairy farmers some escape from the clock. A recent workshop on dairy automation demonstrated that dairy farming has gone hi-tech. Farmers, nutritionists and representatives of dairy automation equipment provided attendees with information on the latest in calf feeders, feed pushers and robotic milkers.
Mor-Dale Farms, in Myerstown, PA, played host for the event. Mor-Dale Farms itself has calf feeders in the new calf barn, where the calves are grouped by age in bedded pack pens. In the new free stall facility, the 250 head milking herd visits the four Lely Astronaut robots an average of 2.9 times per day, milking at will around the clock. And the Lely Juno travels the barn, pushing feed back up to the bunk.
Dairy farmers Dave Myers and Dan Mains, along with Cargill nutritionist Alyssa Dietrich, addressed the challenges and rewards of using automatic calf feeders.
According to Dietrich, calves receive more milk with the feeders than in traditional feeding. Incrementally decreasing the amount they receive, as it gets closer to weaning is helpful. At peak, calves typically receive about nine liters of milk per day. Cutting this back to 4.5 liters for three or four days, then going down to 1.5 liters by day eight, really helps with getting them on starter sooner, and alleviates weaning hassles.
“Everybody has a different feeding plan,” she said, and there can be different feeding plans for each calf on the machine. It isn’t sucking that activates the machine, but the tag or the collar, and the machine can be programmed to feed according to individual animal needs.
Myers’s calves are housed in a new barn with automatic curtains, and are kept in group pens sorted by age in roughly three-week intervals. At day 56, they are weaned off the feeder, and weigh an average of 180-190 pounds.
“When you take them off the feeder, they don’t bawl,” Myers said, as the incremental weaning program simplifies things, and they are readily consuming starter by three weeks, so have an easier adjustment.
At Mains’ farm, three automatic calf feeders serve six pens. Calves in each pen have an age spread of 10 to 14 days. He has about 100 calves on milk at any given time. Calves move in and out of pens in groups, and one pen is always fallow. He uses DeLaval feeders.
About one quarter of the calves are shown the feeder two times, but rarely do they need a third orientation, he said. He skips one feeding before moving two or three day old calves into the group pens.
“You definitely want them hungry” when you move them into the calf pen initially, he said.
Mains — as does Myers — uses Cargill milk replacer. He doesn’t feed hay until they move to another barn at five months old. He starts calves on a total mixed ration top-dressed with a complete calf pellet at three weeks, to acclimate them prior to weaning.
He feeds 10 liters/day maximum of milk replacer at the feeder. Some calves visit twice per day, some as often as 22 times. But the feeder is programmed to allow them to eat at only six visits per day, with a two liter cap at each visit.
“They’re getting their nutrition from the milk,” he said. “You can customize it to whatever you want.”
While milk replacer is used by both Myers and Mains, panel moderator Brad Biehl, also a dairy farmer, uses unpasteurized waste milk in his automatic feeder, but can switch to calf replacer if need be. His calves are kept in one group, ranging from three days to 56 days of age. He can feed 25 calves with one feeder successfully. If he increases his calves to capacity — 35 — he is concerned he may have some issues.
“It’s important to satisfy the calf, and you can’t have overcrowding in the pen,” Biehl said.
Pasteurized milk, too, will work with an automated calf feeder, Dietrich said. Heating the milk for pasteurization, then cooling it down, and reheating it again the feeder is one method.
“There are a lot of additional steps, but they can be very successful as well,” she said of producers using pasteurized milk with automatic feeders. “There are a lot of different options on how to manage it.”
The feeders require routine cleaning, calibration, and maintenance. All panelists agreed that a drain under the feeder prevents wet areas and cleanliness issues and is a necessity. Lines must be prevented from freezing, particularly with older calves, which don’t visit the feeder as often.
The producers did not report any problems with aggressive calves bullying their way into line for the feeders. With beef genetics, there could be some issues, Dietrich said. If a single feeder is feeding two pens, with different age levels, it can be programmed to feed the younger calf first, as the feeders cannot feed two animals at once, if two animals enter the feeder simultaneously.
The first group of calves through Myer’s new barn is just going into milk.
“Two year olds are bigger and doing well,” he said, and he is pleased with the results he has obtained by making the switch to automatic calf feeders.
Ralph Moyer, of Mor-Dale Farms, has recently encountered a different experience with his feeders. Despite a new bedded pack barn with automated ventilation and un-crowded group pens, calves have become ill with respiratory symptoms, and the automatic feeders are complicating things.
The automated feeders are functioning as they were designed, but the design isn’t working to sanitize things, he said. The culprit seems to be that his feeders only heat water — for self-cleaning — to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, at which temperature “everything has to be perfect,” to prevent problems, Moyer said.
Although automation can come with a new set of problems, as Moyer has experienced, the benefits can be substantial. Reducing the need for laborers, providing the dairy farmer some flexibility in the daily schedule, and offering a more consistent method of nutrition or milking management are some benefits that can lead to an increase in animal health.
For some farmers, such as Ralph and Crystal Moyer, the impetus to invest in automatic systems is the desire to continue to farm themselves and to make it appealing to the next generation to continue to dairy. Although the Moyer’s adult children are not interested in becoming dairy farmers, the couple hopes that having a “progressive” dairy would be attractive to a younger generation of farmers, allowing the farm to continue after their retirement.
The presentation was organized by Charles Gardner, DVM, MBA, formerly of Cargill Animal Nutrition, and currently an independent consultant. He is the dairy transition coordinator at the Center for Dairy Excellence.