3 Calf Insights from Autofeeder Data by: Dr. Bob James

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Source: Förster-Technik

Calf autofeeders allow us to collect helpful data on each calf we care for. I’ve analyzed this data across many farms to share three insights about calves and how to utilize the information in a feeding program.

  1. Not all calves have the same appetite. There’s a considerable difference in peak milk intake between calves.
  2. Individual calf intake will vary from day-to-day.
  3. Allowing more frequent meals and more milk intake results in more “satisfied” calves that lack undesirable behaviors, such as cross sucking, excessive bellowing and boredom.

Analyzing the Data

Calf Cloud and Calf App Go enable the calf manager to review feeding behavior of calves as shown here. As a reference for these illustrations, this calf was placed on the autofeeder at 4 days of age and has been in the autofeeder pen for 17 days. The feeding plan used on this dairy is the following:

Period Days Start value (L) End value (L)
1 3 6.0 8.0
2 29 8.0 8.0 **
3 4 12.0 8.0
4 10 8.0 8.0
5 14 8.0 2.0

The calf starts with an allocation of 6.0L increasing to 8.0L per day over the first 3 days on the autofeeder.  During the next 29 days the calf is allowed to drink as much as it wishes, with the condition that it can only consume up to 2L during one visit, and then must wait 2 hours before receiving another meal. During period three milk is reduced from ad libitum (12L) to 8.0L over 4 days which encourages starter intake. Weaning gradually takes place over 14 days in period five. Each visit to the feeder is recorded with the time showing both yesterday and today. Additional information is shown in the graphs below.

What does the autofeeder tell us about this calf’s feeding behavior?

  • The calf visited the feeder 5 times yesterday and only twice this morning. The limit for each visit is 2.5L and the calf has consumed nearly this amount at each visit.
  • Yesterday morning it only consumed .1L at one visit but then returned to drink 2.3L
  • The calf consumed 9.7L yesterday and has consumed 3.8L today.
  • This calf is on the 40fit program which enables the calf to consume as much milk as it wants until day 31 when intake allocation will decrease to 8L.  The shaded area indicates that an alarm will show for this calf if it does not consume 8L/day.
  • Note that this calf has consumed as much at 14L of milk in one day, and intake varies somewhat from day to day.
  • The drinking speed graph shows that this calf is not a real vigorous drinker. Several days after entering the autofeeder system drinking speed declined but has gradually increased since then.  *Note that some calves will drink as much as 1.5L/minute!

Turning Insight into Action

A key feature of autofeeders is the ability to develop strategic feeding options so the nutritional and behavioral needs of each calf can be better met.

  • Daily consumption – There are two feeding plan strategies. Calves can be limited to amount of milk/day or allowed to consume milk to appetite with no limitation. It’s advisable to not limit intake in calves below 8L/day before approximately four weeks of age.  At that time milk allocation can begin to be limited to encourage calf starter intake.
  • Meal size – Typically, the amount of milk a calf will consume during one visit initially is small (~1.5L) and gradually increases as the calf ages (~3.0L). Minimum and maximum meal sizes are prescribed. The maximum meal size prevents the calf from consuming too much at one time.
  • Meal frequency – This feature is commonly paired with meal size. If a calf consumes all of the allotment prescribed for a visit, then the feeder can be programmed to prevent the calf from consuming another meal within a prescribed period of time. The minimum meal size is either prescribed or is calculated from the daily amount prescribed for limit fed calves.
    • Example – If a calf is allocated 8L of milk / day and we assume that the calf has access to the feeder for 20 h/day then 8/20 = 0.4L/h. If the minimum meal size is 1.5L, then a calf must wait 3.75h before it is allowed to consume another meal.  For calves with no limit to daily allocation the practice is to specify the time between meals which is usually 2h.

Autofeeder Data Take Home Messages

  • Most farms will “background” calves for 3-10 days before placing them on the autofeeder, but the longer calves are backgrounded the more likely they become accustomed to fewer meals /day.
  • There’s a great deal of intake variation from day-to-day by an individual calf and between calves.
  • When calves are limit fed on a daily basis (<8L / day) they will revisit the feeder more frequently to try to get more milk, even if the feeder won’t let them have any. Their feeding behavior is much like calves fed by bottle or bucket. They will be hungry!
  • The data from the autofeeder is probably more useful when calves are allowed ad libitum access to milk.  Watch for the post from Dr. Melissa Cantor on how to use calf autofeeder data to predict onset of disease!
  • Future research with calf autofeeder data will likely improve our ability to predict onset of disease using multiple measures.
  • Data from the autofeeder will be a critical supplement to visual observation by calf managers committed to improving calf growth and health.