September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
The University of Minnesota's Southern Research and Outreach Center (SROC) in Waseca, Minn., recently added automated calf feeders to its calf research.
Researchers, Dave Ziegler and Hugh Chester-Jones, said they have been thinking about adding the technology for the past four years.
"The interest in the Midwest with these calf feeders has increased so much lately," Chester-Jones said. "We felt, as a team, we should have a model here to do research so we understand how it fits into a calf raising system."
SROC raises calves for three area dairy farms. The calves range in age from two days old to six months old. About 80 to 100 calves are on milk at all times.
"We hesitated about putting in the automatic calf feeders because our barns have individual pens which allows us to do research on starter and milk replacer. With the automated feeding, you lose work with the individual starter intake," Ziegler said.
At least half of the research projects with the calves evaluate starter intake.
But the researchers thought the information they can gain from having the system would be a far greater benefit to dairy producers.
"There are getting to be more automated calf feeders in the state, and there are more questions about how to work with them," Ziegler said.
The first group of calves was started with the new system in September. There are two pens each with 22 calves using the automated calf feeders. Each pen has one milk-feeding station. One pen also has two starter-feeding stations while the other pen has a bunk for starter.
"We're trying to use automatic grain feeders to work with our system of research," Ziegler said.
To start, Ziegler and Chester-Jones said their focus will be on milk replacer research.
"Our first goal is to understand what the capabilities are of the system," Chester-Jones said. "We wanted to look at more of the conventional type of raising calves instead of using an accelerated program."
Calves are currently being fed 1.25 pounds of a 20 percent protein, 20 percent fat milk replacer each day. An accelerated program would feed about two pounds of a 28 percent protein, 16 percent fat milk replacer.
"Intensified calf feeding systems double milk replacer costs. We're looking for an alternative to that, which would still be beneficial for the calves," Chester-Jones said.
Chester-Jones and Ziegler are hoping to study the calves and come up with feeding protocol that would be between their current one and the accelerated program.
The new automated calf feeding system replaces the research done with elevated calf stalls, which had been in place for almost 40 years.
"We want to try to mimic the calf raising industry and what people are using right now," Ziegler said.
SROC found funding for the calf feeders through their partners, Hubbard Feed and Milk Products. Ziegler and Chester-Jones also said they decided to renovate an existing barn rather than build a new structure to save money.
"It's a real-life situation. Many farms don't have the cash to build a new facility, either," Chester-Jones said.
Since installing the feeders, Ziegler and Chester-Jones have realized the pros and cons of having the system. The feeders cut down on labor when feeding calves.
"It is labor saving, but on the other hand you have to be a better calf person," Ziegler said. "You have to spend a lot of time with each calf when it's new to the pen to make sure it knows where the nipple is."
Calves at the research center are monitored at least twice a day, which is also important for disease control.
"Everything is shared," Ziegler said about group housing. "Sometimes it's hard to know which calf is sick or scouring so you have to watch them a little while. You really have to be on top of things a little more with this type of housing."
However, there are benefits to group housing. It allows the calves more space to run around and also makes it easier when it comes time to transition them to another pen. The calves also seem more calm and quiet than those in individual pens.
As everyone at the research center adjusts to the new way of raising calves, they will be able to gather information about the feeders to pass on to producers.
"We're getting more calls from producers about these feeders," Ziegler said. "Hopefully our research can help them."
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