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Is automated calf feeding here to stay?

Jennifer Haisan and Michael Steele Published on 29 May 2015

Automated calf feeding is not new to the dairy industry, but it is gaining momentum as more research comes out on feeding calves.

One advantage of using automated calf feeders is the ability to feed calves more milk more frequently using less labour. Many studies have shown improvements in calf growth when more milk is fed.



There is also some evidence that an increase in pre-weaning average daily gain is associated with improved milk production in the first lactation. As a result, investigating how early life nutrition and management imprints a calf’s adult life is a field that is becoming more popular.

But increased growth isn’t the only reason dairy producers should consider using automated feeding. Dairy calves are born with an undeveloped rumen, and the primary site of digestion is the abomasum, the “true stomach.”

In order for milk to flow to the abomasum, the calf must exhibit a sucking reflex to close the esophageal groove – a muscular flap that diverts milk to the abomasum rather than to the rumen (Figure 1).

calf diagramWithout closure of the esophageal groove, the reticulorumen can fill up with milk – referred to as “ruminal drinking” – resulting in bacterial fermentation of milk, which can cause ruminal acidosis.

Since automated feeders rely on the delivery of milk through a nipple, calves are required to suck, ensuring milk reaches the abomasum.


Another benefit to automated feeders is the ability to feed calves multiple small meals per day, which research shows improves digestive health. When left with a cow, calves will nurse up to 12 times per day, whereas in traditional systems, calves are fed only two times per day.

Use of an automated feeder allows calves to express their natural behaviour while helping control digestion through the prevention of spillage into the reticulorumen.

When feeding a higher volume of milk, weaning needs to be managed properly. Calves consuming high levels of milk will not eat as much starter, and if not weaned gradually, growth and welfare may be compromised.

Automated feeding allows the weaning process to be slowed and controlled, encouraging calves to increase starter intake, reduce cross-sucking and reduce weight loss at weaning. In fact, research investigating weaned calves has shown growth advantages with a 10-day step-down weaning period.

Despite the advantages to calf growth, health and welfare, why haven’t more producers adopted automated calf feeding? To date, automated feeding systems have required calves to be housed in groups.

While advantageous in many regards, group housing is often associated with more negatives than positives. Competition for access to automated feeders can reduce intake and lead to higher levels of stress, which contributes to issues of diseases in group-housed calves.


While many feeders have the ability to feed up to 40 calves, that doesn’t mean those numbers should be reached in a single pen. Many research groups have shown that the ideal number is approximately 10 and that each calf should be allowed 40 square feet of space.

Regardless, reducing the number of calves in a pen has been shown to have no negative impact on milk intake but does reduce signs of social distress and competition for the feeder.

Group housing also poses the challenges of introducing young calves and managing disease transfer. When possible, it is recommended that group pens be treated as all-in, all-out.

This helps keep calves grouped within the same age range and allows for cleaning between groups of calves to help prevent the spread of disease. With smaller farms, however, this is not always practical, and continual flow-through of calves is required.

Developing strategies to introduce young calves into a pen is a challenging and under-studied area of research. The ideal age at which to introduce a calf to a group pen has yet to be established from both a health and welfare perspective.

One research group has shown that introducing a calf at 2 weeks old required less training than a calf at 1 week old; however, there is more labour associated with keeping calves out of groups longer.

Calves are known to adapt to automated feeders quickly, especially those consuming large volumes of milk with high vigor and strong sucking reflexes, but it is important to always monitor the performance of individual calves.

Cross-sucking is found in many group-housed situations and is detrimental from both an animal welfare and a production perspective.

A primary cause of cross-sucking is feeding a reduced level of milk; therefore feeding more milk, in portions that leave the calf satisfied, reduces its incidence.

Automated feeders offer the ability to adjust the volume fed per meal as the calf ages, thereby allowing for a larger meal size in older calves without changing total milk consumed.

Increased duration of sucking during feeding has also been shown to reduce cross-sucking and can be done by reducing the milk flow through an automated feeder.

Where does that leave us?

In an era where labour is more expensive than ever before and adoption of technology is growing, advancements in automated feeding are expected to grow.

Most recently, Förster-Technik developed the Calf Rail (Figure 2), which is connected to an automated calf feeder and travels to individual pens on a rail, feeding calves multiple times per day.

Calf sucklingThe system has been developed for producers that prefer to keep calves in individual pens while feeding more milk and offers the ability to house calves individually before introducing to group pens while being fed using automation.

New calf feeders on the market have the ability to feed milk replacer and whole milk, separately or in combination, and powder or liquid medicators can be added on.

While not common in practice, these medicators can provide targeted feeding of medication or nutritional additives to calves.

Feeding calves a specific diet is referred to as precision feeding and is expected to grow within the dairy industry, especially with the increased growth of automated milking systems.

Automated calf feeders provide the ability to feed calves individualized diets that are calf-specific based on age, weight or any other parameter deemed appropriate.

In fact, bodyweight scales that tie into automated milk feeders are available to provide users with data on calf growth and allow for tailoring diets to specific calves. While automation is mostly focused on milk feeding, there are also automated systems for solid feed.

These systems can be tied in with automated milk feeders, allowing users to collect data on dry feed intake and adjust feeding of, or weaning from, milk accordingly.

Now, the golden question: Do automated feeders pay? Rough estimates suggest a 200-cow farm feeding calves twice a day would spend $15,000 per year feeding calves – the cost of one automated feeder.

Automated feeders do not remove the human aspect of calf feeding but rather allow for the reallocation of time for tasks associated with calf management. There are both advantages and disadvantages to automated calf feeding, and it is important for producers to consider both before implementation.

However, as research in this area progresses, adoption of automation is only expected to grow. Precision feeding of calves will allow for maximized calf development and ultimately increased productivity of the milking herd.  PD

Dr. Michael Steele is a professor at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutritional Science, University of Alberta. He can be reached by email.

In order for milk to flow to the abomasum, the calf must exhibit a sucking reflex to close the esophageal groove – a muscular flap that diverts milk to the abomasum rather than to the rumen.

  • Jennifer Haisan

  • Research Coordinator
  • University of Alberta