Automatic Calf Feeders - The Future of our Farm

The future of your herd starts with the calves. It is essential to make sure that proper care is given to the cow to help the calf be born strong and healthy. Once the calf is born, as dairy producers, we understand the importance of getting colostrum into their belly and good housing. Regarding housing there are many different options from huts outside to individual pens in a building to group housing and automatic calf feeders. On our farm we had an old building that we converted into a calf barn about 13 years ago. Over the years we played with the way pens were arranged, researched installing positive pressure ventilation tubes, and even cutting the sides off and installing curtains. None of these proved to be practical solutions to the ventilation and calf health issues we were having. So a few years back we decided that the best solution was to build a calf barn that would include everything we wanted.

Peter, my husband, and I started doing research. We visited farms, searched the Internet, and attended workshops. Using graph paper we started sketching out ideas. While watching tv after the kids went to bed our conversations would include how to lay out pens, how many calves should we plan for, and where on the farm we were going to put the barn. It was a definite decision that we were going to move forward with this project. During the fall of 2013 we had some earth moved to form the base of where we were going to put the barn. One day our dairy equipment representative was out doing his monthly check. He saw the earth being moved and struck up a casual conversation about what we were doing.

Peter informed him that we were going to build a new calf barn in the summer of 2014. We just wanted the earth to pack and settle though the winter. As luck would have it the winter of 2013-14 happened to be a good one for land settling. Our representative then asked if we ever considered automatic calf feeders. Our answer was yes, but they were not for us. He then offered to take us out to lunch and tour a few farms that they have installed in the past year. Like any good farm family of course we said yes.

On a cold day last fall we took our first serious look at how automatic calf feeders operate. In the days that followed we had some discussions and started doing more research. We contacted a few more farms on our own to tour. By January we had made a 180 degree turn and decided that we wanted to build a barn for group housing and install automatic calf feeders. Now it was time to go back to the drawing board. We used the hundreds of pictures we took during our tours, layouts from The Dairyland Initiative website, and the pictures we had in our mind we started putting the barn on paper. The next step was to sit down with contractors and put some quotes together. Once we decided which contractor we were going with, the waiting game began. We had to wait because we made the decision to start building the middle of July after we returned from our family vacation out to Yellowstone National Park.  The contractor said he should be able to have the barn done by the 1st of September when our fall calving season was to begin.  On our farm we do not calve year round.  Our herd is divided into two groups.  One group calves in from mid-March to the 1st of June and the second group from the beginning of September until the first of December.

As with any building project, there were some typical issues. The first issue was that the building did not start on time rather almost 3 weeks late. This was in part due to a tornado that went through the area at the end of June. Then some supplies did not arrive on time. Because of these road blocks when the first calf was born on August 25 we had to get creative as to where we were going to house calves. We could not use the old calf barn because all the supplies for the new barn were in there. Our solution - clean off a section of,the cement in the shop and put up the new calf pens that were purchased for the new calf barn.  Next thing we knew those 9 pens were full.  We were then forced to clean a section of the old barn so we could put calves in there.

Finally, on September 12 we were able to move the first calves into the barn.  The barn was not done, but we had worked hard to get at least one pen ready to go.  There were about 15 heifers on the ground by now, and we were running out of room.  Another note about our farm is that we only keep the first 35-40 heifers born each season.  All bulls calves and additional heifers are sold privately within one week of birth.  Our dairy equipment representative along with a DeLaval employee were on hand to to help us move the first 5 heifers over and make sure the machine was functioning correctly.  This part of September was cold and wet.  With no curtains on the barn yet we had to make some phone calls to find a few calf coats.  Luckily we found some and these helped keep our babies warm in the new barn.  Our boys were excited to see the new machine at work when they arrived home from school.  We ordered pizza for dinner and ate it in the milk room while waiting for the calves to be entitled to drink again.  Over the next few days we gradually moved the rest of the calves over.  These first few calves got to witness the doors and curtains being installed.  By the end of September the barn was complete except for the positive pressure ventilation tubes.  We had UW-Madison design them.  As I type, they are here we are just waiting for a nice day to get them installed.

The layout of our barn includes 9 individual pens for starting calves in and 3 pens/nipple stations for the automatic calf feeder.  Barn dimensions are 40 feet by 104 feet.  The first station is a small pen for about 5-6 calves.  This allows them to get accustomed to the feeder.  They are then moved into one of the larger pens.  Those 2 pens can hold up 25 calves.  We also have a feed manger with headlocks separating the main 2 pens.  There are automatic curtains on one side that open and close based on the temperature we have them programmed to.  The automatic calf feeder can run up to 4 nipple stations each feeding 20-25 calves.  Our barn is designed so that we can add on and install additional group pens if in the future we need to expand.  With 3 boys I am sure that is not that far on the horizon.

All farms go through some type of building project along the way.  Whether your future holds building a calf barn or freestall or milking center, I would like to offer the following words of advise.

  1. Visit farms, take pictures, and talk to other farmers.
  2. Visit The Dairyland Initiative to look at blueprints and get ideas.
  3. Do not be afraid to change your mind.
  4. Expect delays and problems.
  5. Always plan for the future.

Automatic calf feeders are not for everyone.  Calves still require care and there is maintenance that needs to be done to the feeder daily.  This is only our first experience with automatic calf feeders, but here is what we like about them so far:   

  • Less transition issues.  In our old system our calves had respiratory issues whenever we would transition them from individual pens to small groups to large groups.  Because of our seasonal calving, our calves will now be able to stay in these groups in one barn until they are 5 months old.  Hopefully when we transition them to a different farm and a different barn, there immune systems are strong and healthy and there will be little to no issues.
  • Quality of Life.  We are no longer stuck to a ridgid feeding schedule.  As long as we keep the hopper full of milk replacer, switch and wash nipples once a day, and circuit clean the machine every day we are good.  When there are little ones only a few days old on bottle, yes we have a more rigid schedule but it's still flexible.  For example when we went to World Dairy Expo, we did not have to find anyone to feed calves.  When we got home around 7 that night we went out and took care of things.  If my son has a basketball game or we have a meeting we can do things a little earlier in the afternoon. 
  • Happy and Healthy Calves.  Yes this is our first experience with automatic calf feeders but I can tell the difference already.  There is no bellering when you walk into the barn at chore time.  Calves are either laying down or running around with their tails in the air dancing.  They are definitely bigger too.  As they wean, this seems to continue.

As we finish up our first round of calves on the feeder we are already looking forward to the spring group.  There have been a few minor bumps along the road with the machine, but nothing major.  The DeLaval and our dairy equipment representatives have been wonderful to work with.  No matter what the future holds for my boys they have left their mark in this barn.  I am confident that as we look towards the future, it's bright with our new DeLaval automatic calf feeder.  I'll provide an update in the spring.


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