We've been adjusting to automatic calf feeding and group housing for three months now. We've learned a lot; and we're still learning.
We haven't weaned as many calves from the feeder at this point as we expected to. Immediately after putting the feeder in, we were blessed with an abundance of bull calves - including four sets of twins. We did get a few heifer calves, though, and they helped us learn the following lessons.
1. Always remember to properly close the calf pen gates. And instruct children on proper gate closure.
Calves raised in group housing with an automatic feeder are bigger, faster and stronger. It's hard to tell if calves are bigger, faster and stronger just from looking at them, but having to catch them and wrestle them back into the pen makes it really clear.
After catching the first calf, I began to see the calves' daily exercise in a new light. Several times each day the calves sprint around the pen like it's a race track. I always thought they were just kicking up their heels for the fun of it; now I understand that they're practicing for the moment when the gate isn't properly latched.
Thankfully, our calf pen is in the barn, so the calves can't get too far. (Although we did have one escape out the front gate that leads to the yard. That wasn't good.)
2. Calves can live with cows.
We'd always been told that baby calves shouldn't be housed with adult cows, but our arrangement is working well. Our calf pen is on the air-intake end of the barn and we did modify the ventilation just to be safe. Our barn is cold (39-40 degrees), but it is constantly that temperature, so the calves don't have to adjust to temperature swings.
We find that having the calf pen in the barn makes caring for the calves much easier. I don't have to carry straw outside. The milk house is nearby for cleaning hoses and nipples. We walk by the pen dozens of times each day, so observing the calves is effortless.
3. Always pick up double the amount of starter you think you'll need when you're at the feed mill.
I am amazed at how young our calves start eating grain now that they're in group housing. Hanging out by the grain dish is something of a social activity for the calves.
They also start drinking water at a much younger age. When the calves were in the hutches, it seemed like they didn't drink a drop of water until weaning started. Now I see calves at the waterer all the time.
The calves also socialize in other ways. I saw something the other day that I'd never seen before: two little heifer calves standing in the corner grooming each other, just like cows do. Now that their friends are doing it for them, I don't have to scratch their chins anymore. I kind of miss it.
4. Everyone can live in the pen.
Right now we have a pair of bunnies living in a corner of the individual pen we use for newborn calves. Skippy, our dog, likes to sleep in the pen. And, if we let them, our kids would spend a lot more time in the pen with the calves, but the calves tend to get a bit too excited when our kids are in the pen.
What we discovered, though, is that our bull calves can live in the pen with the heifer calves, even though they aren't allowed to drink from the feeder.
We weren't planning on keeping our bull calves in the pen, but after the hutches filled up during our flood of bull calves, we didn't have any other choice.
We still bottle feed them twice a day, like we did in the hutches. At first I was concerned about them sucking on the heifer calves, but they learn very quickly to enter the feeder stall and pacify on the nipple.
5. Calves still get sick.
Before switching to the feeder, a majority of our calves would come down with a mild case of cryptosporidiosis at 10 to 12 days old. They always bounced back right away, so it was more of a nuisance than a major problem.
We also had a nasty bout with calf diarrhea last winter that I hope to never repeat. Last year at this time I was giving calves electrolytes around-the-clock; despite that extra care, several calves still needed IV fluids and we ended up losing two.
Now, our calves get a rotavirus infection three days after we put them on the feeder, even though we vaccinate both dry cows and newborns. The good part is, though, that our sick calves aren't nearly as sick as the calves were last winter. They end up having diarrhea for several days, but none have become dehydrated or lost weight. They continue to visit the feeder, drinking smaller amounts. They continue to drink water and eat grain.
They also respond very quickly to treatment. Low-intake calves with fevers will come up to drink within two hours of receiving a dose of flunixin meglamine. We recently started drenching low-intake calves with a milk-compatible energy supplement that contains probiotics and electrolytes. It does a better job than feeding electrolytes alone since the calves aren't dehydrated.
It would be nice not to have sick calves at all, but I'd much rather have sick calves in our current system than be dealing with sick calves in hutches outside.
Did I mention that our sick calves can still run just as fast as the healthy ones?