Wallaces Farmer

Is automatic calf feeding right for you?

Weigh the benefits, drawbacks of automatic calf feeders for your operation.

September 6, 2016

4 Min Read

Automatic calf feeders, or “autofeeders,” are changing the way U.S. dairy farmers and heifer growers raise dairy replacements.

Benefits of automatic calf feeders

Raising calves indoors and out of inclement weather; spending less time processing milk replacer; and retiring from the mundane tasks of scrubbing and sanitizing pails, bottles and nipples all make automatic calf feeders highly interesting to calf raisers.


Automatic calf feeders also provide a convenient and efficient way to feed a full potential diet to preweaned calves. A growing body of university research shows that delivering abundant nutrition – at least 2.5 pounds of milk solids in 8 to 12 liters of water per day – in the first weeks of life translates into greater lifetime productivity. This approach to calf feeding has been shown to positively impact feed efficiency, age at first calving and first lactation milk production.

Automatic calf feeders mimic the natural availability of milk for young calves around the clock. A research trial at the University of Wisconsin compared the performance of calves fed the same total volume of 28% protein milk replacer, with half of the calves fed twice per day (2X), and the other half fed three times per day (3X) for six weeks. Compared to the 2X calves, they found the 3X calves:
-Measured 0.67 inches taller at weaning
-Weighed 10.36 pounds more at weaning and had higher feed efficiency
-Consumed 26% more starter grain in the preweaned period
-Calved and entered the milking herd 16 days earlier
-Tended to average 1,136 pounds more milk in their first lactation


In addition, 97.1% (34 of 35) of the 3X-fed calves survived to adulthood and entered the lactating herd, while just 80% (28 of 35) of the 2X-fed calves entered the milking herd. So, for every six calves fed three times per day, one additional heifer entered the milking herd.

Because automatic calf feeders allow calves to nurse even more frequently and throughout the day and night, the benefits of frequent feeding would be expected to be even greater. Plus, it is challenging to deliver up to 10 quarts of liquid per day to calves in just two feedings without causing digestive upsets. Automatic calf feeders allow for this intake to occur in much smaller, more frequent meals.

Some automatic calf feeder systems have the capability of feeding milk replacer, whole milk or a combination. When waste milk is utilized, pasteurization is recommended, as is the addition of a pasteurized milk balancer to maintain protein levels and ensure consistent nutrient delivery.

Finally, many automatic calf feeders have enhanced features that monitor individual calf behavior and intake electronically. Various diets can be programmed in to adjust nutrient levels for specific calves. Automatic electrolyte feeding may be an option, along with the addition of medication for sick calves. Milk replacer powder quantity and feeding temperature are highly consistent, and reductions in meal allowances for weaning also can be programmed into the machines.

Careful considerations

What’s not to like about automatic calf feeders?

For one thing, “autofeeder” does not mean “autopilot.” While labor is saved on some tasks, more is required in other areas. Calves need to be monitored more carefully, especially as they are adapting to the automatic calf feeder, and if they become sick. The machine and entire feeding system require thorough and routine cleaning. And calf housing and environmental management require greater attention to detail.

Resting space of 35 to 40 square feet per calf is recommended for automatic calf feeder pens. Because calves are consuming a generous amount of nutrients, care must be taken to keep bedding clean and dry. If this does not happen, air quality and calf health will suffer quickly. A minimum of 6 inches of dry bedding should be in place at all times, with excellent drainage beneath it.

Ventilation of automatic calf feeder barns also is critical so calves consistently breathe fresh air.  Air movement is necessary in naturally ventilated barns on calm days. The goal should be to reach 4 complete air exchanges per hour without causes drafts on calves.  Monitoring air quality requires constant assessment of conditions, and daily management of curtained sidewalls and/or fans.

Automatic calf feeders need to be calibrated regularly to ensure correct dispensing of water, milk replacer and/or milk. Feeding temperature also should be monitored routinely, and nipples and transport hoses require replacement on a regular schedule.

Water intake is important in automatic calf feeder systems, and waterers in automatic calf feeder barns are a major source of disease transmission. Routine testing of water quality, and keeping waterers scrupulously clean, also are necessary for successful autofeeder use.

Switching to an automatic calf feeding system requires careful evaluation of financial investment, facilities, labor, and long-term goals for your operation. Automatic calf feeders are not a “maintenance-free” way to raise calves, but they can result in streamlined labor processes and healthy, well-grown, highly productive replacement animals for your herd.

Source: Land O’Lakes

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