Automated feeding is on the rise

Automated feeding is on the rise and by elevating the levels of milk fed, the negativesautomatically disappear!

Feeding neonatal dairy calves is important business. The level of nutrition newborns receive is absolutely vital to their health, their short and long-term growth, their welfare and, ultimately, a whole host of other important markers. Historically dairy calves had been limit-fed milk and calf milk replacer (CMR) at about 10% of bodyweight, as farmers hoped to decrease feeding costs, stimulate early rumen development and increase starter intake.[1] However, feeding larger amounts of milk or CMR, pre-weaning, helps calves reach breeding size earlier, which decreases age at first calving and the associated costs.[2] Increased growth rates enabled by higher amounts of milk also lead to greater lifetime milk production.[3] And, when calves themselves have access to feed ad libitum, they consume milk at levels close to 20% of their bodyweight in small, frequent meals throughout the day. But how best to get calves the additional milk they want and need has been a problem for many farmers due to labour costs and other ongoing management issues. Automated feeders, however, simplify the task of offering more milk in more meals. In an effort to determine the advantages and disadvantages that come with this technology, in 2015 researchers at the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia came together to review the existing literature[4] on automated systems. They found that the current and long-term advantages they provide far outweigh the possible drawbacks.

Automated feeding leads to many on farm positives

While they found much good comes from using automated systems, economic gains that come from labour efficiency are perhaps the most obvious advantage. With automatic feeders, both labour time and costs are dramatically cut. They found it takes roughly 10% the labour to feed with an autofeeder as it does to do so manually. Time saved can be used for other types of calf or cow management. Advancements in improved health and growth that come from feeding more milk would also spur future economic benefits, by increasing milk production.

In nature, calves feed up to 10 times per day, slowly reducing in number, but increasing the quantity per feeding, prior to weaning.[5]Another advantage of automated systems is that they can, in this way, be more consistent with the natural behaviour of neonatal calves, thus increasing animal welfare. Greater feeding frequency, especially when calves are fed larger volumes of milk, also improves digestion and feed to growth conversion.[6] We know that increasing the volume of milk fed is good for future milk production, but it's important to note that if that larger amount of milk is fed in only two feedings, it could lead to problems for the calf, if abomasal capacity is surpassed.

Another advantage of automated feeders is that they make later, gradual weaning more feasible (and profitable). While abrupt and early weaning is still widely practiced, it's been well documented over the last decade that later, gradual (or step-down) weaning is preferable for continued calf growth and lessening stress[7] that necessarily comes from weaning. Automated milk feeders would allow for later, more gradual weaning without increasing labour costs and would also enable individualized weaning, which could prevent growth checks.

As it had been thought that minimising contact with herd mates would reduce the spread of diseases, pre-weaned calves had been housed individually in the past, but researchers now suggest that disease and mortality rates are no worse when calves are housed in small groups. The benefits that come from housing young calves together include improved feed intake and growth both before and during weaning.[8] That said, as most automated feeding technologies require group housing, it's important to look at how poor group management could result in issues.

Potential downside

While automated feeding systems can be a costly investment, many calves can be fed by one feeder. While this brings up possible issues with group dynamics and competition for access to the feeder can occur, that competition is greatly reduced when both larger portions of milk are fed, and the total amount of milk or CMR available is also increased. While non-nutritive sucking, also known as cross-sucking when calves suck one another, can also occur when they are housed in groups, the answer to this issue is also to feed more milk! Additional strategies can also be employed to reduce cross-sucking, such as making the opening on the artificial teats smaller thereby reducing drinking speed, closing the stall of the feeder station thereby allowing calves to stay longer at feeders, and, again, allowing for gradual weaning.

What does the future hold for automated feeders?

Automated feeding technologies provide many animal welfare advantages. While humans have traditionally been in complete control of feeding milk to calves on farm, with automated feeding, calves can have more control of this themselves, which in itself is more humane. And, with the data collection made possible through autofeeders, the opportunity for individualised feeding exists, as well as the ability to detect illness and develop therapies for treatment, including individualized nutritional management strategies.

Allowing calves more autonomy and feeding closer to their natural way, enhances public perception. Coupled with improved overall calf management, savings in labour costs, and the potential for customisation and individual feeding schemes means automated feeding systems are here to stay. And that is a very good thing!

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