Dairies use automation to improve conditions for calves

The calves at Rohe Dairy don’t bawl when they’re hungry.

They live together in small groups in a tall, well-ventilated barn here, about 90 miles northwest of Minneapolis, and they eat whenever they please from an automated calf feeding machine.

The calf feeders, outfitted with scanners and sophisticated engineering, are the latest high-tech addition to dairies, which also have begun to invest in robotic milkers for their cows.

“Our conclusion is that automated calf feeders are here to stay, and they seem to be drawing more and more interest,” said Tom Earleywine, director of nutritional services for Land O'Lakes Animal Milk Products, which has done research on the technology.

Increasingly sophisticated equipment is bringing dramatic change to the lives of dairy farmers throughout the Midwest. Researchers at Iowa State University have calculated that the feeders can reduce labor costs by more than 40 percent, make farmers’ schedules more flexible and allow more time for producers to monitor and manage calf health.

At Rohe’s barn, 31 calves are separated into three roomy pens, according to their age. On a recent morning, some lay contentedly in the deep straw and others cavorted in playful running and jumping. As Michele Rohe opened a gate, a handful of them pushed forward as she began to stroke their heads and necks.

“They’re just like kids,” she said. “You'll have a couple that will head butt each other a little, or at least push back and forth. And then you'll see others grouped up with their heads affectionately right on top of one another’s body.”

The scene in the barn was starkly different from the traditional way of raising calves.

That method typically isolates calves by housing them in individual hutches, often outdoors, with little room to move and no opportunity to interact with other calves. They are usually fed twice a day and remain in the light-colored structures for about eight weeks until they’re weaned.

That system worked well for generations, said Marcia Endres, a University of Minnesota animal science professor and dairy specialist, but feeding calves individually is labor-intensive and time-consuming. Automatic feeders give farmers more flexibility with their schedules, she said, and they allow calves to socialize, move around, and feed in a more natural way.

“You can program the machine to feed them four, five or six times a day with smaller amounts so they don’t get an upset stomach,” Endres said. The systems also allow more total milk to be fed each day without requiring the calf to drink large amounts at each meal, she said.

But with the advantages come additional risks: Calves growing up together may be more vulnerable to disease, Endres said.

“It’s like taking the kids to day care,” she said. “Now they’re mixed with other calves and they can get more disease, so we have to be on top of it and play close attention.”

Endres and a team of researchers are studying 38 farms with automated calf feeders in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, and have collected health and feeding data on more than 10,000 calves with the goal of developing best management practices for the new technology.

Rohe’s husband and his two brothers own and operate the 250-cow dairy, she said, and they installed the automated calf feeder in August 2012. They paid about $15,000 for the feeder and software, she said, and invested about $100,000 to add the calf barn and ventilation system to an existing building.

On a computer screen Rohe can view when and how much each calf has consumed, how often each has returned to the nipple, and even the speed at which they fed. A red bar will show up on the screen whenever a calf has not eaten, a sign that it may need to be reminded of where to find the nipple, or checked for sickness.

Rohe monitors the feeding process at least a couple times each day when she visits the barn, and she can call up real-time information with an app on her cellphone at any time of day or night. A surveillance camera in the barn also provides images that she can access on her phone to check for problems, such as whether calves are grouping up at the feeder – a possible sign that it’s plugged or somehow malfunctioning.

Minnesota has more than 4,000 dairies, and Earleywine estimated that 150 to 200 of them are now using about 400 automated feeders. He said the pace has picked up significantly in recent years.

But he cautioned that some machines are basic, and don’t have automatic cleaning devices or sophisticated software.

Endres at the university agreed that cleanliness cannot be emphasized enough, especially since calves with developing immune systems are vulnerable to disease. “Even though it’s an automated system, some parts of it still have to be cleaned manually by the producers, and not everybody (in our study) was doing that as well,” she said.

Rohe said that 431 calves, including the most recent born last week, have used her farm’s automated system during the past two years, and she’s pleased with the results.

“They have better weight gain, better health and a better girth about them,” she said. “Before they’d have a little indent on their sides but now they’re nicely formed and filled out animals.”