A pair of calves enjoy a meal of milk replacer at Dykstra Dairy’s heifer ranch. Each calf wears an RFID chip in its ear tag that allows the automatic calf feeder to determine if and how much milk replacer should be doled out to the calf. (photo by Jerry Nelson)

A pair of calves enjoy a meal of milk replacer at Dykstra Dairy’s heifer ranch. Each calf wears an RFID chip in its ear tag that allows the automatic calf feeder to determine if and how much milk replacer should be doled out to the calf. (photo by Jerry Nelson)

STRUBLE, Iowa – Computers are everywhere these days, doing things that would have amazed even Buck Rogers. Many of these computerized tasks take place behind the scenes, while others – such as helping a corn planter scribe laser-straight rows – are much more visible.

Perhaps one of the best examples of labor-saving, computer-driven technology can be seen at Dykstra Dairy’s new calf raising facility.

Dykstra Dairy, which is owned by Darin Dykstra and his family, is home to 3,000 head of milk cows. Until recently, Dykstra Dairy used the services of a heifer raiser to rear their replacement heifers.

As of this past Dec. 15, that all changed. Computer technology has made it possible for Dykstra Dairy to raise all their own heifer calves, using the labor of just two people.

“Darin decided that his death loss was too great at his heifer raiser so he decided to take control of the heifer raising process,” said Karl Bos, manager of Dykstra Dairy’s new heifer ranch.

Dykstra Dairy’s heifer ranch started out as a bare site. A multiplex of buildings were erected on their site over this past summer, including a shop, a commodity shed, and three 1,100-foot long open front buildings to house growing heifers. 

Perhaps the most remarkable structures are a pair of 288-foot long sheds that shelter their baby calves. What makes them notable is the fact that each of these two buildings contains seven computerized automatic calf feeders.

“We had previously installed several automatic calf feeders, but they were all retrofits,” said Ed Herbst, General Manager of Sioux Dairy Equipment, the Rock Valley, Iowa firm that built and helped design Dykstra Dairy’s heifer ranch. 

“It was fun to work on a facility that was expressly designed for automatic calf feeders,” said Herbst.

“Each of the calf feeders can feed 50 calves, so each building can accommodate up to 350 baby calves,” said Bos. “We have split the calves into pens of 25. Each pen was designed to hold up to 30 calves, but we decided to under-populate the pens to give them a bit more room.”

Calves are born at Dykstra Dairy’s main dairy facility. After being fed their first meal of colostrum, the calves are taken to the heifer ranch. 

“We receive on average 10 to 12 new baby calves per day,” said Bos. “Sometimes there are as few as five, but we have gotten as many as 27 in one day.”

The calves are put in pens with other calves their age. Most new arrivals must be taken to the automatic feeder a few times before they catch onto the system.

“Some calves don’t have to be trained; they figure it out all by themselves,” said Bos. “The average calf will have to be taken to the feeder three or four times before it learns that this is where it gets fed.”

Once they get the hang of being fed by a robot, the calves are free to visit the feeder as often as they like. An RFID system identifies each calf as it enters the feeder. The feeder’s computer then determines if the calf is eligible to be fed and doles out a predetermined amount of freshly mixed milk replacer.

“The computer allows us to control the amount and concentration of milk replacer being fed,” said Bos. “We’ll start the calves at five to six liters per day, then gradually ramp them up to eight liters per day. We wean the heifers at 54 days and the bulls at 42 days. During the last 14 days, the feeder gradually reduces the amount fed from eight liters per day down to two liters. The calves barely notice it when they are weaned.”

Bos has learned that a lower concentration of milk replacer can be fed to bull calves compared to what is given to the heifers. Bull calves are currently sold at 60 days. After weaning, the heifer calves are moved into one of the three open front sheds. The heifers will remain at the Dykstra Dairy heifer ranch until they are 180 days pregnant. 

Having computerized machines performing the task of feeding calves doesn’t mean the end of human contact with the baby bovines.

“They still need attention,” said Bos. “I’ll walk though each pen at least a couple of times per day. The feeder will also tell me if a particular calf isn’t consuming its quota of milk replacer or if it’s not visiting the feeder as often as it should. That calf will then get my personal attention.”

Bos, who grew up on a 120-cow dairy farm in Lyndon, Washington, likes the social aspect of housing the calves in groups.

“Dairy cattle are herd animals,” he said. “Housing them in group pens means you get to see their personalities, who is more aggressive, who is a bit shy. Competition is good. Sometimes we’ll get an extra large bull calf who can have his way without even trying. In that case, we’ll put him in a pen with older animals that are more his size.”

The 14 robotic calf feeders on the Dykstra calf ranch have been turning in solid performances.

“They clean themselves three times a day,” said Bos. “Twice a week, we do a circuit cleaning and inspect the nipples and replace them if necessary. Other than that, the main thing is to keep them full of milk replacer powder.”

“The company that manufactures these machines has been making them for over 15 years,” said Herbst. “The technology is very mature, very robust.”

Baby calves are offered a custom-blended calf starter as soon as they arrive. Dykstra Dairy made the decision to install training panels in their baby calf pens. These training panels have V-shaped openings that are very similar to the configuration of a headlock.

“The trainers teach the baby calves that they have to lift their heads in order to eat,” said Bos. “It makes it a lot easier for us when they move into the bigger barns where they have to use actual headlocks.”

Bos beds the baby calves with straw at least once per week, more often if needed. Calves remain together in the same pen until they are weaned. The pen is then emptied, cleaned, power washed, and sterilized with lime.

On a chilly February afternoon, Bos watches as a pen of baby calves frisk about in a deep layer of fresh straw.

“I love raising baby calves,” he said. “This is heaven to me.”

Even though their “mother” is a machine, it appears that the calves think it’s pretty nice too.