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Automated calf feeders: 10 steps to successfully rear calves

Automated calf feeders can help save time and improve the accuracy of feeding, but the machines do require some attention at the beginning of the process.

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Automated calf feeders: 10 steps to successfully rear calves

IF you had told Chris Webb 15 years ago he would have moved from the fast-paced tech industry to farming, he would have probably laughed.


And while it has been four years since Mr Webb packed in writing software full-time, the former technology business owner is still working by the same data-driven principles when it comes to calf rearing at his unit at Whitchurch, Shropshire.


Mr Webb is using technology on his farm to monitor exactly what happens to his calves during the rearing process.


“We monitor frequency and timing of visits, how much and how fast they drink, and whether they ’break off’ before they finish their portion. Our machines also weigh the calves, so we can track their growth and spot any checks.”

When it comes to data collection, Mr Webb is using two Forster Technik Vario Smart Feeders and two Urban U40 Feeder machines supplied by Volac.


These give real-time data to Mr Webb’s’ smartphone via tracking collars on the calves, which synch to the milk machines.


Calves arrive at one to three weeks of age and are fed milk powder for the first six to seven weeks.


Mr Webb says: “We then wean based on each calf’s weight, which the machine tracks. When a calf reaches 75kg the ration goes down by half a litre for every kg of growth, weaning the calf at 87kg."


Mr Webb rears 1,000 beef, dairy and Wagyu calves a year, with plans to double in size by the end of 2018. He has devised a number of protocols when using automatic feeders, to help achieve the best results during the rearing process.

The 10 steps Chris takes to rear calves:


1. Find the right supplier


"Until we have reared at least one batch from a farm, it is hard to know how good their colostrum management is,” says Mr Webb.


“But once we find someone who consistently sends us healthy calves, ideally in larger batches so we can fill whole pens, we try to stick with them.”


2. Practice good hygiene


“We are sourcing from five to six farms at any one time, so it is essential we practice good biosecurity and keep calves separated in pens, by farm. We tend to keep the groups together, but will mix and match a bit to try and equalise size to limit bullying at the feed trough.”

3. Let calves settle on arrival


"Calves are often very excited when they are first unloaded. Giving them an hour or two to settle down before trying to feed them helps, unless it has been too long since their last feed."


Letting the calves settle before trying to train them reduces the incidence of digestive upsets, but also ensures they are hungry, he adds, making them easier to train on to the machine.


4. Latch and attach


"When it is time to train to feed, I let a calf suckle on my fingers and guide them into the feeder, switching their attention from my hand to the teat by guiding their mouth until they latch on.


"Sometimes they need a little push to encourage them into the feed station, but be gentle, you do not want to make them frightened of the feed station."


5. Synch the tracking collar and place on the calf


Both machines can be used with electronic ear tags or collars to recognise individual calves in the feeders, adjusting feeding amounts accordingly and sending data back to Mr Webb.


“The machine needs to register to the collar before the calf starts feeding, so I hold the collar in my other hand in front of the sensor as I first guide the calf in, and then attach it round her neck once she is happily guzzling.


"Make sure both its front feet are on the front scale of the machine so it can take the calf’s weight and immediately begin monitoring its growth rate.”


6. Form a queue


Machines are programmed to feed calves two litres during the first feeding, allowing for six litres per day.


“While you are waiting on the calf to finish, lead up another calf with your finger. The others will get curious and start to stand near the machine once they know it is nothing to be afraid of.”


7. Repeat process


“Typically, half the calves in a pen only need to be shown how to feed once. I keep track of the summary page on my phone of which has drunk and which has not, and I will go in and chase up as necessary later that day, or next morning if the calves were first fed in the evening.


"Typically, 90 per cent of calves learn how to feed within the first three to four visits.”


8. Track data points and monitor health


“Very often, health issues will show up as behaviour changes in the metrics reported to the machine before it is physically obvious.


"Increased visits, decreased feeding times and decreased milk consumption are an early indicator of illness. However, this will never replace physically walking through calves, so use both together.”


9. Practice disease prevention


"Healthy happy calves are the real priority, so it is important to buy calves from farms with the same attitude. It is worth paying a premium for animals which have been vaccinated against pneumonia on the farm of origin. Otherwise, we will vaccinate them in the first week after arrival.


"That way, not only do we get the benefits of the pneumonia prevention, but the next farm does as well.”


10. Maximise daily gain


“Our continental and dairy calves are currently averaging 1kg a day. The Wagyu are at 0.8kg a day.


"A huge benefit of using the automatic feeder compared to a teat bar is giving calves equal opportunity to receive the right amount of milk and not be in a guzzling race against each other.”

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