Interview: Gill Dickson on feeding via computerized machines; what to avoid and how to increase benefits

In the second part in our four-part series with veteran calf and youngstock advisor Gill Dickson, LifeStart asked her to discuss things to avoid when feeding via computerised machines, and the ways to bolster the health and growth benefits that can come with computerised feeding

LifeStart: Are there any precautions you feel need to be taken when using computerised feeding systems?

Gill Dickson: Preparing the calf before introducing it to the machine is an important part of the process. During the first few days of life they should be kept individually and trained to use a teat. The machine is not a calf rearer. You still need experienced staff! It’s really important to house the calves individually in a clean, draught proof pen and feed sufficient good quality colostrum in the first six hours of life. The sooner the calf comes away from the cow and learns to suck a rubber teat, the quicker she will settle on to the feeder. I would suggest five days on colostrum and give them a couple of meals on milk powder before transferring. That way they recognise the taste of the milk powder before the transfer.

The training time varies. Some calves will take three days to learn the routine, some will take ten days. But, on the day that the calf jumps forward and grabs the teat, you know she’s ready for the group pen! If they go into the group pen too early, the rearer will have to continually get the calf up and lead it to the feeder. That way the calf gets bonded to the rearer, and eventually, won’t feed unless the rearer is standing there watching! This isn’t helpful and defeats the object. Once the calves are on the feeder, they should just get on with it and copy the other calves, and shouldn’t need stirring up several times a day. The screen will tell you who is feeding and when.

Setting the feed curve on the machine should be done in discussion with the feed firm supplying the milk. Each machine has several pre-set feed curves which can be selected, or you can write your own. Sometimes the pre-set curve gives too big a volume in each meal. Somebody rearing a Jersey on a bucket wouldn’t give it 2 litres in one sitting; and, similarly, the machine should be set to dispense frequent, small meals for this type of calf. In contrast, a 55kg British Blue bull calf can probably manage 2 or maybe 2.5 litres in one sitting. A lot of this is common sense, but the machine isn’t a calf rearer, it’s a vending machine. So, it has to be programmed with explicit instructions. The seller of the machine will have an advisor, and other experienced calf rearers are usually happy to help out with recommendations based on their experience.

It’s also worth remembering that when the machine is stocked to the hilt it can be difficult to feed meals little and often, as calves are constantly queueing up. They should be lying down and growing for 70% of the day, so if calves are queueing, choose a programme with four meals a day, and they will have increased access to the machine.

LifeStart: What health and growth benefits do you feel come with the use of computerised feeding systems as compared to once or twice a day restricted feeding?

Gill Dickson: On once a day feeding, people commonly feed 600g of powder in 3 litres of water. On twice a day feeding, a common feed rate would be 375g in 2.5 litres x 2= 750g of powder/day. If Holstein heifers are going to calve down at 24 months, we are looking for a growth rate of 0.7-0.8kg/day. In essence, 600g of powder won’t give 800g of growth. The majority of people rearing Holstein heifers would be feeding a minimum of 900g a day of milk powder and some would feed up to 1.2kg, which means calves could triple their birthweight by weaning.

A well fed calf is a healthy calf as they have plenty of extra calories available to help their immune system develop and fight off disease. So anyone looking to accelerate the growth of their heifers either needs to mix the powder at an increased concentration, or give extra feeds. On the continent, it is common to find the very youngest calves fed 3x /day, but it is less common in the UK. The alternative is a machine feeding system. Once a day is a good way of getting calves to take more dry feed and in my view is a sensible approach once the calves have doubled their birthweight, and are ready for weaning.

LifeStart: Are there any additional ancillary benefits that come from having computerised feeding systems on-farm?

Gill Dickson: Various attempts have been made to measure stress in cows and calves. The stress hormone, cortisol, is one method of monitoring stress. Cows kept loose in a herd show lower levels of cortisol than those kept tied in a stall. We know that calves kept in a group eat dry feed earlier than those kept in isolation. While more work needs to be done on the effect of exercise on the health of calves, I believe exercise improves their general health and they love to run and kick their heels.

Machine feeding allows us to get closer to a ‘natural’ rearing system while still allowing early rumen development. While we can’t afford to keep the dairy calf like a suckler calf, computerised feeding systems go a long way towards looking after the farmer’s pocket (i.e. earlier weaning), ticking the boxes from a welfare point of view (socialising), and decreasing stress in the calves as well as giving the calf rearer a more flexible work schedule.

The beauty of the computerised machine is programmed weaning, so that the rearer can set a weaning date on the feed curve (eg. day 60) and from that point onwards the machine will reduce the amount fed by 0.2 litres per day. This means a long, slow weaning period while the rumen starts to become functional, and a slow gradual change over to dry feed. Larger weaned calves can then run in the same pen as unweaned calves, and post weaning stress is reduced!

On a lot of dairy farms there are two labour demands at either end of the day. Machine feeding systems mean the calves can have attention in the middle of the day, while the machine takes care of the feeding throughout the day. It can also make for a better lifestyle, allowing farmers to spend time away from their farms, but knowing their calves are fed.