Have you ever heard the phrase ‘take care of your pennies, and your dollars will take care of themselves’? This same parable works for a herd. Making sure our calves get the right start yields healthy, calm, top quality dairy cows. Yes, animal care is good business. And even though calves born on our farm won’t help us pay the bills until they start milking around age 2, its essential that all of our animals, from calves, to heifers, to the 10 year old dairy cow, receive the nutrition, care, and attention they need.
Getting an automatic calf feeder on our family farm had been on the to do list for a long time. But it isn’t until recently that we found the right equipment to meet our calf rearing goals. Barstow’s Longview Farm is very excited to announce our new automatic calf feeder, the CalfExpert!
So how does it work?
The automatic calf feeder is situated in a small room at the center of the calf barn with six pens surrounding it. Each group has access to at least one feeder stall at a time. Calves live in groups of around 8 with others their age, typically born within a two week period.
The automatic feeder is available 24/7, which means calves can eat when they are hungry and on a more natural schedule. The girls are tagged with RFID chips so that the feeder can identify her. These ear tags will come in handy when they are older too – the robot milkers use the same technology! Based on her weight, age, and the last time she ate, the automatic feeder mixes her meal fresh and tailor made to that animal.
Calves drink their meal from a rubber teat which is sanitized, inside and out, between calves to reduce spreading germs.
About our herd
We raise 600 dairy head on our farm, 300 of them are dairy cows. Close to 270 are young stock, aged two months to two years, they’ll join our milking herd when they have their first calf! That leaves 30 or so calves. Calves are not yet weaned and drink a milk diet for their nutrition and health. Approximately 150 Holstein and Black Angus calves are born and raised on our farm each year.
Definition: a formula that replaces the mother cow’s milk and is an economical choice for feeding calves versus whole milk. Quality milk replacers have a minimum of 20% fat and 20% protein to give the calf what it needs to grow strong and healthy.
Before the robot feeders
Up until a few months ago, Barstow’s Longview Farm was following older procedures for calf raising. For decades, dairy experts agreed that separating calves while their immune systems were developing was best practice to keep them healthy. Calves on our farm lived in a barn but were separated into individual pens. This format has many benefits, is safe and healthy, and used around the world and in our own communities.
Twice per day, we manually mixed milk replacer and warm water in an enormous, heavy bucket for the whole calf herd. This was a wet, thankless job; not a task we are sad to be rid of. The farmer poured milk into a bucket for each calf with a measured scoop, eyeballing a little extra for the oldest calves.
With feeding done at 6am and 6pm, we’d stop in throughout the day to replenish grain and water and check on the calves until their next meal. Health checks with the calves were based on what we saw; there was minimal data kept on calf feeding habits, weight, and health at this age.
We needed a change
Manual calf feeding is time consuming, leaves room for inconsistency between staff, and doesn’t provide calves with the precise nutrition, attention, or socialization they need. And with (very much deserved) retirement on the horizon for the sixth generation and our commitment to exceptional animal care, the CalfExpert automatic calf feeder is a welcome addition to the team.
7 things we LOVE about the robot feeder:
1. Provides more consistent care while reducing labor.
2. Reduced crowding in our heifer group. Calves spend a little extra time in the calf barn which gives our older girls a bit more space.
3. Tracks individual feeding behavior data of calves to detect calf intake and health. Our calves are eating more to better match their nutrition and growing goals! We’ve seen calf health flourish.
4. Socialization. Research indicates that when calves socialize with other calves some benefits include increased weight gain, improvements in calf behavior and social skills, and reduced stress response when handled.
5. The system is designed for calf comfort, health, and nutrition – a fresh mix is adapted to each individual calf.
6. Weaning is easier. The feeder is able to mix a lower milk replacer powder concentration automatically for individual animals in the weaning process. Previously, calves were cut off cold turkey. The automatic feeder system reduces stress and minimizes gaps in nutrition.
7. Food safety and hygiene. Unlike other automatic feeders, the station rinses the entire milk tube through to the teat during longer drinking breaks. It also automatically cleans several times every day, reducing a calf’s exposure to bacteria, improving the health of the calves, and saving on manual cleaning time.
Your neighborhood dairy farm
We love sharing what we are doing here at the farm. After all, you should know what’s going on in your neighborhood and your local food system! We’ll be doing a few calf barn tours come April.
But if you simply can’t WAIT to see our new automatic feeders, we are offering a free walking tour on National Ag Day, March 22! Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery will be celebrating Pi Day next Monday, 3.14. And it is never too early to place your orders for Bailey’s cheesecake, shamrock sugar cookies, and Irish Beef Stew. We are also accepting prepared food and dessert orders for Easter (which is April 17).