In any system, calf care is done best by individuals who are patient and detail focused. According to Bob James, a professor emeritus with Virginia Tech, the most successful autofeeder calf barns are run by people with a certain skill set.
“For group housing, you want to seek a calf manager, not a calf feeder” James said during the September Hoard’s Dairyman webinar. “You want someone who has a passion for calves.”
James, who now serves as a dairy consultant with Down Home Heifer Solutions, said the person managing a farm’s calves on autofeeders should also be passionate about sanitation and enjoy data.
“They are going to use data to compliment calf observation and make proactive decisions,” James noted.
The key, though, is that data cannot replace observational skills that notice changes in animal behavior. James reiterated that data is a supplement to visual observation. Effective calf managers walk pens first, he said, look for calves that appear off, and then look at the data. “If we look at data first, we may not look at all calves in the pen,” he explained.
The calf care team also includes staff members who work with cows before calves are even born. A quality dry cow program, maternity environment, and colostrum management all play a role. “We have to do all this, or we won’t be successful,” James noted.
Do autofeeders save labor? James said they could reduce the number of people working in the calf barn, but the individuals who work there might command a higher salary due to their skill set, so labor costs may not be reduced. However, James said feeding calves indoors in groups could allow for more effective and efficient employees who are happier in their jobs.
“The key is getting the right person in that facility who has the skills and desire to do those things effectively,” James said. He noted that finding labor to feed calves is a future area of concern for him. Between feeding milk, providing water, and bedding calves, calf care is labor intensive.
“I think all of us would agree that labor is a big challenge. If we can make calf managers more satisfied and effective, it’s a big win-win,” he shared.
To learn more, watch the September Hoard’s Dairyman webinar, “Raising calves on autofeeders – will it work for you?” This webinar was sponsored by TechMix.