Automated feeding for individually housed calves

There is new technology in Canada that can take all the guess work – and most of the manual labour – out of feeding individually housed dairy calves.

Click the image to watch a video of the CalfRail
Click the image to watch a video of the CalfRail

It’s a fully automated individual feeding system called CalfRail by German company Fӧrster Technik that allows farmers to precisely and efficiently feed individually penned calves up to eight times per day.

“Research shows that the first 40 days of a calf’s life are when you will see the highest gain,” says Jan Ziemerink, Computer Feeding Specialist with Fӧrster Technik North America. “With the CalfRail, calves drink almost 100 per cent of the 10 to 12 litres per day they get, and you will see better results with multiple feedings per day.”

When it’s feeding time, the machine automatically starts to prepare milk in 500 mL batches using warm water and milk replacer at an exact, consistent temperature. The CalfRail then travels down the aisle of calf pens, stopping at each pen to allow the calf to drink its portion. A hot water line runs alongside the milk line inside the hose system to ensure the milk maintains a consistent temperature right until the calf drinks it.

The CalfRail’s software can be programmed with how much milk each calf is supposed to receive; during weaning, the machine will automatically skip calves that aren’t to be receiving a specific feeding.

In turn, the CalfRail records the drinking speed and amount of milk consumed by each calf – data that can be accessed immediately on a handheld unit next to the mixing station or on a computer. The software is compatible with most commonly used dairy herd management systems, so the data is transferrable once the calf leaves its individual pen, assuring producers of complete traceability for each animal.

“The rail waits two to three minutes in front of each calf for it to start drinking. If the calf doesn’t come and suck, the rail moves on,” explains Ziemerink. “It waits 60 seconds after a calf finishes to let its sucking reflex go down before moving on. We always know exactly how much each calf drinks.”

The calves catch on quickly so there’s no need to train young calves to use the system. Once feeding is complete, the system runs a cleaning and sanitizing cycle, leaving the producer with only the job of cleaning the nipple. But that doesn’t mean farmers don’t still have to pay attention to their calves.

“You become a calf manager, not a labourer with the CalfRail. You still have to spend time in the barn watching the animals and you have to pay attention to machine warnings for service and calibration, etc,” says Ziemerink. “But you’re no longer tied to exact feeding times and the machine will make sure calves are fed at exactly the same times every day. “

By monitoring each calf’s drinking speed, the system could also help lower animal health costs by catching possible health problems early. The CalfRail knows each calf’s average drinking speed for the last three days it has been fed, so if an animal suddenly starts drinking at only 85 per cent or less of its normal speed, farmers can treat that calf with some electrolytes before having to resort to additional treatments.

“The CalfRail takes the guess work out of feeding calves. The mixing is much more accurate with regards to temperatures and how much milk replacer to use, and the timing of the feedings is always very precise,” says Ziemerink. “If you milk 100 cows or more, this might be something to think about for your operation.”

Ron and Debbie Riddell of Delholme Farms near Milverton had one of Ontario’s first CalfRail systems installed in their new calf barn this past spring. Their system is set to feed calves 2 to 2.5 litres of milk five times in 24 hours: 5:30 am, 10 am, 2 pm, 6 pm and 10 pm.

They’d originally installed an automatic group feeding system seven years ago, and although it worked well for some calves, it didn’t allow for the one-on-one attention of individual pens. Their new calf facility also addressed some of the ventilation issues of their previous barn and combined with the CalfRail, calf performance to date has been excellent.

“The results have been phenomenal so far. We’re only on the first group of calves but we’re extremely pleased with what we’re seeing,” says Ron.

The biggest change has been an improvement in health with the calves gaining well and not showing any of the illness and respiratory problems they used to.

“We still monitor which calves drink and which ones don’t, which we find easier with this system,” he adds. “Especially when you’re training a young calf, you can give it that individual treatment that you can’t do in a group.”