Proud to Dairy

How Robotic Calf Feeders Turned Around our Entire Calf Program

In November 2014 we put the first group of calves in our brand new automated feeding barn. You always hear about the disasters when it comes to automated calf feeders. But we rarely heard about a success story. Truth be told, this facility and management change has turned our entire calf program around from birth to post weaning. 

To give you some background, our previous situation was far from ideal. We had calves coming out of our ears. They were stuck everywhere. Tied up to gates, in group pens. Honestly they were anywhere we could put them. We had enough calves that we could build a third calf barn the same size as our other two and fill it up immediately. Needless to say, our calves were not cared for in the way they needed to be. We had scours out of control and our calves were just not growing like they should. 

We were not taking the time to invest in our calf rearing. We were so bogged down with work that the calves just happened to be our neglected area. The future of our farm was not going to excel. So we decided to do something about it. With the number of extra calves we had a barn was in our very near future, regardless. We built a new automated calf barn. 

We did not just want to build any barn. We knew to do it right we had to put the time in and do a lot of research. We traveled across the midwest and the state looking at different facilities and we talked to numerous successful managers and owners to see what they would change and what they did right. When we decided to make the leap into robotic calf feeders we decided we were going to do it right. We wanted to think through our design and how we would use it. By building a barn that would work with our management philosophy but also give our calves an ideal environment we knew we could succeed. In the process, we also learned a great deal about managing calves. 

You will need a lot of support. The reality is you will need help. We have a Purina calf and heifer expert, Matt Costigan, that specializes in robotic calf feeders. He is a life saver. Without him we never would have been able to build a barn this successful. We asked him hundreds of questions about what we needed to think about to build the perfect barn for us. We talked about rations, feeding, bedding, ventilation, etc. Even after we got started we had a thousand questions and it is a necessary to have someone there to guide you and help you fix any problems with the feeders. 

Now that we have been in the new barn for 6 months I have realized another advantage to having Matt around. For years heifer raisers have understood this because that is what they do. But so often when a dairy farmer raises their own heifers they get forgotten. When the vet or nutritionist comes you worry and talk about the cows. We rarely had anyone look at our calves. Now, we have one person focused on our calves when he comes. We talk about any challenges we see, he notices things we miss and he is helping to bring our entire heifer program to the next level. It  is something we have that we didn’t before. I consider my calf people, Lauren and Matt, worth their weight in gold. 

For too long we have went with the old philosophy of using a 20/20 and feeding twice, maybe three times. After moving into our barn and upgrading to more of an accelerated milk replacer we are amazed at the results. Our calves grow out of calf coats in 4 weeks that they used to wear for 8 weeks or longer. We sadly don’t have any data but we can see the results in the health and growth of the calves. Our calves used to fight scours like crazy. Anymore, they physically have scours but eat themselves right through it. It is amazing to see a calf not bothered by it in the least. It made me realize that we were shorting our calves by so much nutrition for so long. 

One of the most essential things that need to be considered in an automated calf facility is ventilation. If you do not think about it, you could be ensuring your facility never truly works like you hoped it would. Having a ventilation tube engineered custom for our barn was some of the best money invested. We have had very little coughing during a spring where pneumonia has been a common occurrence in our area. 

Just because you built this big barn does not mean you need to fill every square inch. Not overcrowding is extremely important when it comes to an automated feeding facility. You built the barn for a certain number of calves realistically, you need to stick to that. If you overcrowd problems come. Most of the companies that sell you calf feeders will tell you they can feed a lot more calves than what they can. Remember, the more calves you have in there the fewer times a day the calves will eat. Finding the right number that works for you is key. For us, it happens to be 20. 

One of the best things that has come out of the new calf barn is we are doing less calf manual labor. Which means that when we have a new calf we aren’t moaning and groaning. We don’t mind taking the time to feed a new calf  a gallon of colostrum and making sure the navel is dipped well and that it has all of its immune boosters and vaccines. From the moment they hit the ground we are able to take better care of the calves than we could before. 

A big part of changing how your calf facility and rearing program works is going into it with the philosophy of “we have to make this work or we are going to make this work”. I have noticed when everyone says, “We will see how it goes” it doesn’t turn out right. Everyone has to be on board and they have to understand that this is going to work. For us, this barn was the perfect example. From the first drawing to the last piece of curtain going up, we have taken the philosophy of, it has to work. Honestly, it has exceeded every expectation. 

I understand we haven’t been through a summer with our barn yet. But after the winter we went through I am confident in the barn continuing to work. I truly believe a calf rearing program can make great strides with the help of great industry representatives, a well thought out plan (or barn) and a can do attitude. We are living proof that it can work and work well.

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Comment by Christina Winch on May 24, 2015 at 8:23pm
Nice story Ashley. I can relate. We moved into our new calf barn with automatic calf feeders in September 2014. We are also enjoying it and it was a good decision for us.

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