March 2021


Group housing with autofeeders can be a hugely successful system to raise preweaned calves. But if calves get off to a slow start, the transition into that rearing method also can be disastrous.

As calf raisers gain more experience with autofeeder systems, here are some acquired tips to help calves make a smooth adjustment from individual housing and feeding to group rearing:

1. Develop a strategy for transfer age – Ideally, calves should go onto the autofeeder as quickly as possible. Discussion on the Milk Products Calf Academy indicates that some dairies are able to switch calves to autofeeders as young as 2-3 days of age, while others wait until calves are up to 2 weeks old. Herd size is a major dictator of how quickly pens can fill.

2. Give sale barn and multi-source calves more time – Calves from a single dairy managed with high health status usually can be moved within a few days of birth. But the Milk Specialties advisors suggest calves from various sources that have been transported between farms and may have passed through a sale barn usually need extra, individual care. They often have poor or unknown colostrum status, and will do better if they are raised individually until 10-14 days of age.

3. Watch the age spread – Very young calves competing with older, aggressive pen mates puts the younger ones at a tremendous disadvantage. Generally, a spread of no more than 3 weeks is recommended, and a smaller age span always is better.

4. Wait for a strong suckle – Even calves that are the “right” age to move might not be ready if they are not aggressively eating. Hold them in individual housing until they have a hearty appetite and are drinking well.

5. Use the feeder to mix individual bottles – If calves are held in individual housing beyond the colostrum and transition-milk feeding period, use whatever milk formulation is being mixed in the autofeeder to fill their bottles, advises Jim Fischer with autofeeder manufacturer Forster-Technik. That way they will be accustomed to the taste and aroma of the liquid ration, and will not need to adjust digestively when they are moved.

6. Move them full, train them hungry – In their Automatic Calf Feeder Handbook, Milk Specialties Global advises against moving hungry calves. Instead, introduce them to the new pen after they have received their evening bottle feeding, so they can relax and settle into their new environment. Training on the autofeeder can start the next morning, when calves are hungry and not stressed by the move.

7. Nipple train initially – Milk Specialties advises assisting calves at the feeder for the first morning feeding, then waiting until afternoon or evening to train again. Similarly, Fischer with Forster-Technik advises 10-12 hours between first and second trainings. The next day, assist only in the morning, and only if the feeder report shows no activity for that calf.

8. Train calmly and gently – Do not rush when nipple training. Most autofeeders have a training pump that allows you to gradually introduce milk through the nipple. Calves may need a little guidance to get positioned correctly, but always handle them gently, because you don’t want them to become afraid of the feeding station.

9. Use priority settings if available – Some machines can be programmed so that new animals receive priority feedings. For example, calves may receive priority for the first 7 days they are in the pen. If a calf with priority enters the feeding station, the machine immediately switches feed over to this calf by shutting off the supply to a potentially older calf that is feeding in front of it.

10. Don’t overtrain – If calves are healthy and hungry, nearly all of them will catch on to the feeding system by observing other calves and following their natural instincts to suckle and satisfy hunger. If you “babysit” them too much, you run the risk of imprinting behavior that expects a person to be there to feed them.


Dairy Herd Management