Bucket, Bottle, Autofeeder?

There are many ways to successfully feed calves. Many people are very set in the way they choose to deliver milk to their calves. What I want to do in this article is outline the pros and cons of each way, to hopefully give you a more open look at your feeding methods.

  1. Bottle

A majority of people in the dairy industry use this method of feeding milk to pre-weaned calves. It is argued that it is the most natural way for calves to receive milk. There are a few things to consider when feeding with a bottle.

One of the benefits of feeding calves this way are they may be easier to train to drink from a bottle. With a bottle, you need to consider the height and the angle of the bottle. If the bottle is too high, you run the risk of the milk flowing into their lungs, causing them to aspirate, which will cause an increase in pneumonia cases and potentially cause death. The angle of the bottle is also important because if it is too steep, the calf may have a hard time getting milk out because of the nipple flow being cut off.

Image result for calf drinking from bottle

Another thing to pay attention to is the size of the hole in the tip of the nipple. Can you stick your pinky through it? If so, the hole is too big, which again can cause aspiration and pneumonia. Nipples need to be changed regularly to keep their integrity and be safe for your calves. The last consideration for bottles is ease of cleaning and sanitizing. A lot of things can hide in those bottle corners and up in the nipple. Bacteria in those hard to reach places can cause a biofilm and cause you many issues. Outside of being more natural, there are many things that make bottles a challenge to manage.

2. Auto Feeders

At a glance, this system seems like the perfect solution to all of the issues that arise with calves on milk. It mixed milk the exact same every feeding (hopefully), it is self cleaning, it keeps it the correct temp, calves have access at all times of the day, calves can eat at any hour of the day. It seems perfect right? Wrong.

Personally, I would only recommend this system to the most advance calf manager. While it may seem easy, you really need to know your calves when it comes to this kind of system. When you go out and feed a calf every day twice a day, you spend a lot of time looking at them, allowing you to notice issues much faster. When you only walk the barn and check drinking speeds once or twice a day, things can slip under the radar.

Image result for auto feeder calf

Another issue with these system is when they say they are self cleaning, that is a gross understatement. I have worked at two farms with auto feeders. The one farm had 12 auto feeders, and a full-time employees that her ONLY job was to clean auto feeders, 8 hours per day. If that doesn’t explain that they aren’t self cleaning, I don’t know what will.

Another note is the technology. If you struggle with computers and technology, these could cause some frustration. I am 23, I grew up with computers and these things STILL confuse me! If you love tech, you will LOVE these, if not, I would steer clear.

As I said at the beginning, they are supposed to mix consistently every time. That is not always the case. If you feed milk replacer, you risk the powder distributor getting clogged up. This could end up giving one calf 3 oz of powder and the next 14 oz.

Image result for auto feeder calf

The last issue is the cost. The basic model of one feeders can run you anywhere from $6,000-$8,000. On the positive side, they can save you a TON of time and energy if they are properly managed. The technology allows you to make a custom feeding schedule. You can do a custom step up/step down feeding plan. You can customize the maximum amount of milk each calf is allowed. There is many charts, graphs, and statistics, that if looked at, can tell you so many things about the calves you are raising.

These are all things to consider when thinking about auto feeders. Do you hate doing the job of actually feeding calves? Do you love cleaning and organizing data? This feeding system could be the answer for you.

3. Buckets

Like the other options for feeding your calves, there benefits and drawbacks to buckets. At our farm we use buckets. After every feeding, they are rinsed with warm water and hung to dry.

The main downfall of buckets is people don’t care for the idea of training a calf to drink out of a buckets. Many times it can be more challenging and time consuming. Once you learn how to properly pail train a calf, it is even easier than a bottle.

People continually say that “buckets are harder to keep clean than bottles”. I wholeheartedly believe the opposite is true. Can you stick you hand all the way into a bottles to clean it? No. Can you see all four corners of a bottle to see where things might be hiding? No. What’s getting stuck in the cracks of the nipple and the hole at the top? I don’t know but I can imagine it isn’t good.

I will be the one to say, healthy calves will drink out of a bucket after one feeding of colostrum. We do it every day, with as many as 10 calves at a time. If you calves won’t drink, something happened between birth and the time of feeding to cause them to not want to drink milk. Again, some believe that calves are healthier and grow better on a bottle, but there is no research to prove that is the case. Many say it comes down to management style, and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a bucket raised calf and a bottle raised calf. I would have to agree.

Buckets can be easily cleaned, sanitized and stored until they are needed again. You can reach and see all parts of the bucket with out too much trouble.

We don’t take all of the buckets and wash them every day, that just isn’t necessary or practical. We only wash and sanitize our milk buckets between groups or if they get dirty somehow (e.i. someone comes up to the headlock with manure). Each pen has the same set of buckets for 7 weeks. They also share a buckets with 15 other calves. We don’t have problems with scours, and we don’t see disease transmission like many articles state.

Like I said earlier, I am bias, as we use this method at our farm. I have used all methods, and I still prefer to feed with buckets. I enjoy the challenge of getting a new calf to drink, I like to be able to look at all surfaces of the bucket to find bacteria, I like to see the calves doing well with a lot less work.

With buckets you need still need keep them clean. One of the main issues with buckets is calf raisers don’t treat them the same as they treat a bottle. They don’t take it away and wash it twice a day.

Buckets can be clean, easy, and grow great calves if managed properly. It does require more time upfront to train each calf to drink, but down the road it should hopefully save you time.

A few other option that there are out there are milkbar feeders, or group bottle feeders, along with a trough or group bucket feeder. I don’t recommend this unless you are feeding very large amounts of milk, and you calves are all EXACTLY the same age and size. With these systems you run the risk of one calf over eating or under eating.

There are many ways to feed calves, some are better than others for certain farms. They can all be great if managed properly, they can all be horrible if mismanaged.

No matter what type of feeding system you use, DK-ll can keep them all clean!

In my next article, I will dive deeper into our feeding system to show you how we feed 200 calves milk in less than 45 minutes, with buckets!

If you want to consider changing over to one of the following systems, contact me at smartcalfco@gmail.com. I can help you get organized and work out all the details to make the transition simple and smooth. I am confident that with good management, every single one of these systems can be successful.

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