Interview: Gill Dickson on feeding via computerized machines vs. restricted feeding

In the first of a four-part series, LifeStart sat down with Gill Dickson, veteran calf and youngstock advisor, to discuss her thoughts on feeding via computerised machines vs. restricted feeding once or twice a day

LifeStart: We understand that you feel computerised feeding for neonatal calves is, in most cases, better than restricted feeding. WHY do you feel this way?

Gill Dickson: I have always found that working with nature, rather than against it, produces a better result. A calf left on the cow would naturally suckle seven or eight times a day and take maybe one or two litres at each feed. In my view, small but frequent feeds are digested better and calves grow better. When they grow quickly they seem to grow away from disease.

There was an interesting trial done at Wisconsin University feeding eight litres/day split into two feeds versus eight litres split into three feeds. The ones on 3x/day gained 18% more weight in the first six weeks. i.e. 3x/day is better than twice, and twice is better than once. In my view, calves should be offered a minimum of two feeds per day for the first eight weeks (which is when feed conversion is at its most efficient.) It is legal in the UK to feed calves once a day after the first 28 days. But, in my experience, it’s only the best rearers who get a good result like that, and it’s impossible to deliver the target 900g of milk powder in one feed, as the concentration would be too strong and cause digestive problems. Hence, most once a day systems use 600g, with subsequent slower growth.

LifeStart: As a follow-up, what are the specific benefits of machine feeding, aside from savings on labour costs on-farm?

Gill Dickson: Machine feeding allows calves to exhibit natural behaviour such as socialising, exercising, and learning to live in a group. The machine allows the rearer to keep control of the amount of powder offered and records sucking speed and amounts consumed, so that the rearer can focus on monitoring calf health and performance. Therefore, the rearer can often predict when a calf is becoming ill, and give early treatment on the basis of what appears on the screen.

Also, calves can live as one group, but can be fed as individuals. So, say for instance we had a Charolais bull in the same pen as a Jersey heifer, they could be offered 2.4 litres and 1.4 litres respectively, as their appetite will differ according to the size of the abomasum. There won’t be any bullying as each calf is allocated a slot where they can receive their meal.

LifeStart:What do you think is the biggest barrier stopping more dairy farmers from using computerised feeding, aside from the initial monetary investment, or do you think the initial investment is the primary barrier?

Gill Dickson: The £7,000-£10,000 (8800 to 12600 euros) is a major investment, and often the housing needs modification as well. Many farmers will look for a cheaper method.

There are also some prejudices. Some dairy farmers believe that suckling a rubber teat will make the heifers more prone to cross-sucking as adult cows. But in fact, research conducted in British Columbia showed the reverse was true. The animals kept in groups on rubber teats actually cross-sucked less than the restricted heifers. Cross-sucking often happens after feeding restricted amounts of feed as they still feel hungry and look around for anything else to suck. Calves on computerised feeders can always go and visit the teat, so they rarely suck another calf.

Also, on some dairy farms there are disease issues in the first three weeks of life which prevent early mixing in groups. Usually the disease spread is controlled by keeping calves separate for the first three weeks in hutches, or individual pens. So, these farmers could be reluctant to group heifers from Day 5 onward, fearing disease transfer. Any farmer in this position should discuss the disease issues with his vet, as every farm is different. Frequently, a good colostrum protocol, good hygiene in the calving pens, and a vaccination policy will sort out the neonatal disease problems.

Some farmers worry about all calves using the same teat and passing on diseases as well. The machine manufacturers are now producing a teat washer to address this issue. My personal feeling is that we need to improve immunity (colostrum again!) and reduce disease challenges (hygiene again!) as all calves are in nose to nose contact, and not all calves in a group become ill. We have to reduce their susceptibility to disease through careful management, good feeding and a good environment. I have no experience with teat washers, but in theory they should help!

LifeStart: What do you feel would need to happen, or need to be understood, in order for more dairy farms to make the switch from restricted once or twice a day feeding to computerised feeding?

Gill Dickson: I think there are a lot of dairy herds who have spent money on cow comfort in the last few years, and heifer rearing is the next item on the list. However, we need a better milk price for many farmers to take up the computerised feeding option. Often, it demands new accommodation, as well as investment in the feeder itself. There are many well managed units with calves in single hutches growing at 800g/day, so the only reason these people would change is to save on labour, and maybe have a different lifestyle.