Comparison: OAD feeding vs. TAD feeding vs. an automatic calf feeder

Calf feeding is usually the most labour intensive job during the spring-calving season with the majority of farmers opting to feed their calves on a twice-a-day (TAD) feeding system.

However, in recent times automatic calf feeders along with once-a-day (OAD) feeding have increased in popularity – as a way of reducing the time spent feeding calves during the busy spring period.

During the final day of the Animal Health Ireland (AHI) and Teagasc calf care events – held in Co. Galway – a comparison was made between a TAD feeding system and a once-a-day (OAD) feeding system.

Furthermore, the pros and cons of automatic calf feeders versus a manual TAD feeding system was also examined.

Speaking at the event, Volac business manager Rebecca O’Sullivan stated: “A study – completed in Teagasc Moorepark – which compared the OAD feeding of calves to the TAD feeding of calves, from one month-of-age, showed no difference between the two.”

However, the most notable difference between the two was that OAD feeding reduced the amount of time spent feeding calves by one-third.

Image source: AHI

During the event, Rebecca recommended that farmers who are considering switching to a OAD feeding system should not place their calves on OAD until they reach four weeks-of-age.

A study in Teagasc found that the digestive system of young calves is not developed enough to consume large volumes of milk until they reach four weeks-of-age.

Moreover, Rebecca stressed that calves must have continuous access to fresh water whilst on OAD. She explained that calves tend to drink more water when they are on a OAD feeding system.

It is important that ad-labium fresh meal and straw/hay is also available, she further noted.

Another point made by Rebecca was that a consistent feeding routine must be continued despite the calves being fed OAD.

She said: “If the calves are fed that morning, they should not be left until the following evening the next day. They should be fed at the same time they were fed at the day before.”

Automatic calf feeding vs. manual calf feeding

Teagasc’s Michael Donoghue was also on hand on the day to discuss the pros and cons of automatic calf feeders versus manual calf feeding – using teat feeders.

He stated: “The biggest barrier to an automatic calf feeder is cost. They range between €7,000 and €12,000; however, there is a grant available at the moment.”

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Another pitfall of an automated feeder, he highlighted, was that “with an automated feeder housing facilities may have to be altered, so that all the calves have access to the calf feeder”.

A further point he made was that calves would have to be reared indoors until they are weaned at 12-weeks using this type of feeder. Whereas manual feeding would allow them to be fed outside once weather conditions allowed.

However, looking at a study completed in Teagasc Moorepark, in spring 2019, which compared manual feeding – with teat feeders – to an automatic calf feeder the amount of labour required was dramatically reduced by using an automated feeder.

Unlike manual feeding, with the automatic calf feeder the majority of time is spent checking calves (represented in the blue area on the pie chart below); as with manual feeding this is usually built into the feeding time.

Likewise, with the manual feeding the feed inspection (represented by the purple area on the pie-chart below) takes up the greatest amount of time as calves need to be checked when they are feeding for bullying, to ensure they are all drinking, etc.

Image source: AHI. Time required per calf per day, manually or automatically rearing calves from five days to 10 weeks-of-age

Nevertheless, the most time-consuming task involved with an automated calf feeder was training calves how to use them; although once this one done labour overall was reduced in comparison to manual feeding, the study showed.

The research revealed that this took two minutes longer per calf in comparison to the manual feeding method.

Whatever the feeding method, both Rebecca and Michael stressed that calves must still be checked TAD – to top up meal, bed with straw, identify sick calves, etc.

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