The author is a senior associate editor for Hoard’s Dairyman.

For years, it was a goal for many dairy farmers to avoid calf-to-calf contact in their young stock housing. More recently, though, the industry has seen an opposite trend and a transition to paired or group housing on some dairies.

“It’s a different way of caring for calves,” said Bob James, a professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, during the September Hoard’s Dairyman webinar. “Generally, we don’t like change.”

However, James, who now serves as a dairy consultant with Down Home Heifer Solutions, said that the benefits of autofeeders are many. A big one is the ability to feed calves according to their nutrient requirements.

“This system allows them to have more milk early in life when they are not eating much starter, regardless of how much milk or milk replacer we feed,” he explained.

Autofeeders let calves eat multiple, smaller meals each day. The availability of more milk also lets calves respond to changes in the environment. For example, James said if it is really cold outside, they can up their intake. An autofeeder allows for a more natural feeding behavior as well, like a beef calf would nurse from its dam.

Other benefits include earlier starter intake and less stressful weaning, since calves are already in groups and avoid that stressor when being weaned. He said it appears calves raised with their peers also learn faster and adapt better to novel situations.

While there are many positive reasons to raise calves in groups, “I don’t think this is something for everybody,” James acknowledged. “If you are going to do it, let’s plan for success.”

Right barn, right people

One key for success is designing the right barn to house calves and autofeeders. “Get some professional assistance in planning,” James advised.

A barn should have a ventilation system that provides fresh air year round. Also consider the collection and processing of manure, urine, and water. Decide how materials such as milk or milk replacer, calf starter, and bedding will be handled and stored. Also desirable in a barn that relies on technology is access to the internet to be able to fully utilize the data captured.

No matter what the barn looks like, calf care is done best by individuals who are patient and detail-focused. According to James, the most successful autofeeder calf barns are run by people that have a certain skill set.

“For group housing, you want to seek a calf manager, not a calf feeder,” James stated. “You want someone who has a passion for calves.”

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 complement 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. The most 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 of the 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 protocols 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 may earn a higher salary due to their skill set, so labor costs might not be reduced. However, James said feeding calves indoors in groups may 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.

Meal planning is a must

An established feeding plan is an important part of successfully raising calves on autofeeders. This includes feeding plenty of milk or milk replacer.

“It is non-negotiable, whether calves are housed in pairs or groups, you have to feed 8 quarts of milk at a minimum as soon as you can,” said James. “If you feed less, you have hungry calves, and they can start cross sucking.”

He added, “When I see intake on most calves, if they’re raised right and have really good vigor, they are going to be eating 8 quarts by at least 7 to 10 days of age.”

For James, ad libitum access to milk the first 28 days is ideal. He has found that some calves will drink up to 16 liters per day, but a maximum daily allotment could be set at 12 liters.

From Day 28 to Day 32, daily milk should be reduced to 8 liters and then remain at that level until Day 42. This milk reduction is intended to stimulate starter intake and prepare the calf for weaning.

Then, from Day 42 to Day 56, reduce the milk allotment from 8 liters to 2 liters to gradually wean the calves. James, who works with many dairy producers around the world, said that this system works quite successfully for many farms.

Milk provided per meal could vary from 1.5 liters for the youngest calves and up to 3 liters for older calves. Calves could be permitted to access another meal after two hours.

When deciding between feeding milk or milk replacer in the autofeeder, James reminded, “Consistency is important regardless of what is being fed.”

If feeding milk, “That milk really should be pasteurized,” he emphasized. Even if feeding “good” milk from the dairy, James said there is the potential for some disease agents to pass through that milk.

“My goal is to maintain quality from cow to calf,” he said, noting that milk already starts out with higher bacteria counts than milk replacer.

If feeding unsalable milk from fresh or sick cows, James said a farm must monitor how much milk is available to feed calves and know what will be used to supplement when there isn’t enough unsalable milk available.

James also reminded the audience that unsalable milk is not free. “It cost you money to produce that,” he stated, “so it must go into the equation.”

While milk can be used very successfully in autofeeders, James said milk replacers can simplify management. A farm must be willing to pay for quality milk replacer, though, with a minimum of 24% crude protein and fat up to 25%.

Many autofeeders are designed to feed both milk and milk replacer, and James said, “I think you can be successful with either if properly managed.”

Start them out right

To get calves started on a feeder, James said animals should be backgrounded and fed individually for one to 14 days. These calves should receive the same liquid (milk or milk replacer) that is being fed in the autofeeders.

At what age calves should be introduced to the autofeeder depends on dry cow, maternity pen, and colostrum management, James noted. For best results, “A vigorous calf is required,” he said.

He recommended moving calves into the feeder pen in the afternoon. The calf’s first training to the feeder should take place the next morning, when the manager will lead the calf to the feeder and turn on the pump. The calf could be trained again that afternoon or the next morning.

James said that trainings should not be rushed, and managers should handle calves gently. He also said that as long as a calf is healthy, it is okay to let them get a little hungry between feedings rather than train the calf too many times. Overtraining can formulate bad habits and teach the calf to wait for a human to initiate its next feeding.

Some of the best training will come from calves watching other calves. “By in large, calves really learn from their peers,” he said.

Unfortunately, bad habits, such as cross sucking, can also be learned from other calves. However, James said he really sees few problems with cross sucking in autofeeder barns when calves are fed enough milk, which would be at least 8 liters per day.

Another key element to calf barn success is proper sanitation. “Let’s have the same mindset for autofeeders as we do our milking system,” James said.

Data for the future

So, are autofeeders an option for your herd in the future?

While group housing and autofeeders will not work for everyone, James encouraged farms to consider it. “They offer some real significant benefits for the calf,” he said, pointing to a higher level of nutrition, a calmer demeanor, earlier starter intake, and possible adaptability benefits that carry on to adulthood.

There is also the potential to save labor and make calf feeding more enjoyable for caretakers. In addition, he said these systems could be an advantage for building relationships with consumers, who tend to prefer calves be raised in groups rather than individually.

In general, autofeeders fit best when the herd manager likes to look at data. “Does the system fit your management style?” he asked.

“We have an opportunity to automatically record some information to move us to the next level in calf management, to be a lot more proactive and pick up problems a little sooner,” he said. “Let’s optimize the calf program for the future.