Why this Limerick-based farmer made the switch to a computerised calf feeder

A growing number of calves are group-housed and fed using computerised (automatic) calf feeders during the milk-feeding period.

Computerised calf feeders have many benefits including less labour requirements and the ability to feed calves little and often.

Farming in the heart of the Golden Vale, in Bruree, Co. Limerick, Andrew Cussen and his family run a herd of 120 crossbred cows under a spring-calving system.

Calving commences on the farm on February 1 and runs until April 15. Every year, 30-40 replacement heifers are kept on the farm, and the additional calves are sold at four weeks-of-age.

Andrew is a firm believer in adequate colostrum intake, and all calves on the farm receive 10% of their birth weight for four consecutive days. After this, calves are moved straight onto Andrew’s newly installed Urban Alma Pro calf feeder, supplied by Volac.

Prior to installation in January of last year, Andrew extended and modified his existing calf shed to accommodate the calf feeder.

While doing so, he implemented better drainage and ventilation systems, which are both very important when it comes to successfully rearing healthy calves.

Andrew Cussen and Volac’s Sharon O’Donoghue

Commenting on his new feeding system, he said: “The main reason I went for the calf feeder was due to the labour associated with the old system.

“I was feeding whole-milk in homemade carts; it was very labour intensive – especially on my own. The calf feeder has taken all the work out of it,” Andrew explained.

When it comes to feeding his heifer calves, Andrew opts for Heiferlac (900g) for a total of 70 days, with weaning commencing on day 45.

“I have one feeder with two stations, so I can feed up to 60 calves. This was my first time feeding milk replacer.

“My father was sceptical feeding milk replacer to the surplus calves we were selling; he thought they might not thrive as well. But, he couldn’t get over how well the calves went on the milk replacer.

Since Andrew installed the new unit, he hasn’t looked back.

“The best thing about the calf feeder is when I’m weaning the calves, it makes a huge difference because I can wean them off gradually.

I would highly recommend it; it does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

“It’s very easy to clean. The computer is very easy to use and straight away I can see the calves that haven’t drank; if a calf hasn’t drank I’ll be notified straight away,” he explained.

Why make the investment?

An investment in a computerised (automatic) calf feeder could significantly reduce the amount of time and labour required to rear the calves, which usually takes up a large part of the day during the busy calving season.

Not only that, an automatic calf feeder can improve calf performance through bringing greater control and consistency to the milk feeding protocol. This is important for the successful growth and development of a healthy calf.

Computerised feeders can be seen as a way of taking the variables out of the rearing process. However, to be effective, good hygiene standards, a high level of supervision and sound overall management are the critical success factors.

Efficiency Gains From Computerised Calf Feeding

The computerised calf feeders are designed to introduce flexibility into the day and to reduce the time spent on mechanical tasks such as mixing milk and carrying buckets; thereby, offering more time to observe the calves.

The controlled and consistent feeding means each calf is fed the same concentration, at the same temperature, at the same rate each day; allowing each calf to be fed according to a pre-set programme to meet that specific calf’s individual needs.

The feeder itself is designed to mimic the natural feeding pattern of the calf with minimal wastage.

Sick or weak calves are easily identifiable because any calves which have not visited the machine – for their daily allocation – are flagged up on the control panel. This, along with other key information about the calves, can be easily accessed via your smartphone.

Andrew Cussen and Volac’s Sharon O’Donoghue with his Urban Alma Pro calf feeder

Furthermore, weaning couldn’t be easier with the automatic calf feeder. An automated and stepped weaning process was developed to ensure minimal set-backs to the calf, as they make the move off milk over to starter feed.

Weaning

Volac advises gradually reducing the amount of milk offered to calves, over a three-week period between days 35 and 56 (see table below). This encourages starter intake, helps rumen development and improves the ability of the calf to digest nutrients after weaning.

“For the high milk fed calf, we now recommend a three-week weaning period between days 35 and 56 where milk replacer is fed at ≤ 750g of milk solids/day to ensure calves eat enough starter to allow for sufficient rumen development,” says Volac calf rearing specialist, Liam Gannon.

Calves that are fed more milk over the first five weeks of life will be bigger and more vigorous. These calves will subsequently eat more starter when milk is gradually reduced from day 35 to 56.

What’s more, calves fed more milk, coupled with good starter intakes, will be more likely to achieve their early growth targets and lifetime milk production potential.

Below is the recommended milk feeding plan with a three-week weaning period (for calves fed twice daily). The stepping down period is shaded orange.

Volac Lifeguard milk formula mixed at either 12.5% or 15%

The reduction in milk solids per day will be specific to each individual dairy farm. For detailed advice on stepping down milk powder feeding levels on your unit – and making the most of computerised calf rearing machines – please speak to your local Volac business manager.

Other features of the computerised calf feeder

The reassuringly easy to use, reliable and robust nature of the feeder makes the automatic calf feeder an attractive choice for any farmers.

Key features:
  • Rears up to 120 calves;
  • Primus feeding computer;
  • Designed for use with whole milk or milk replacer;
  • Precise measuring of milk consumption;
  • Up to eight different feeding curves available;
  • Unique circulation system;
  • Fully automatic cleaning;
  • Robust stainless steel cabinet.

Already using a computerised calf feeder?

In order for your automated feeder to operate to its full potential it must be calibrated correctly and maintained regularly. Scrupulous hygiene is also important.

10 top tips when using a computerised calf feeder:
  • Spend time familiarising yourself with your machine and make the most of all its various functions;
  • Calibrate your machine to ensure accurate mixing of milk replacer and check this calibration every four weeks or when a new batch of milk powder is started;
  • Always keep the dispenser areas clean and wiped daily;
  • Dry sweep areas around calves. Refrain from using a hose, especially a pressure hose, as this will damage the machine and create a wet environment around the feed station, which will encourage bacterial growth;
  • Check your machine daily to make sure it is performing at an optimal level. React to any warning alerts;
  • Be mindful of the weather. For example, pipes may freeze in very cold conditions, so make sure you have a contingency plan for these eventualities;
  • Good teat hygiene is crucial. Clean and change teats regularly. Teats can be soaked in a solution of disinfectant and replaced in the morning and afternoon. It is good practice to alternate the station teats on a daily basis;
  • Run the in-built cleaning cycle programme regularly. Full circuit cleaning should be performed at least once a week. Clean the machine thoroughly between each batch of calves;
  • If you identify any repeated issue with a machine (e.g. not cleaning or calibrating properly), contact the equipment supplier or your service engineer;
  • Ensure you always follow manufacturer cleaning and maintenance instructions;
  • Make sure your machine is serviced annually.

Thinking of investing?

Volac supplies innovative computerised calf feeding systems from two manufacturers: Urban; and Förster Technik. Upon purchase, farmers are offered a high level of training and support for these machines from both companies.

The Volac team will be on hand at this year’s National Ploughing Championships in Fenagh, Co. Carlow – Stand No: 167; Row: 7; Block: 3.

Farmers can rest assured that their Volac business manager will be on hand to answer any questions and help you maximise the value of your investment in machine feeding.

More information

For more information, contact your local Volac business manager, or just click here . Alternatively, visit the Volac stand at this year’s National Ploughing Championships.