Automated Calf Rearing System

September 2007
Noelene Taylor and her husband farming 230 ha near Rongotea. At the peak theyre milking 670 Friesian cows (milking platform 210ha). The Taylors aim for 270,000kg MS production annually.

Theyre milking all year round - rearing about 300 calves annually, made up of autumn and spring born calves.

The heifer calves are reared for herd replacements. The bull calves and heifers that dont make it into the herd are sold at 100kg.

Nuts and Bolts

The Holm & Laue automated calf rearing system looks like a small "bail in a milking shed. At the end of the bail is a teat which is supplied with milk or a milk powder mixer. The whole milk is drawn from a holding reservoir and heated to a specified temperature shipped to the teat for calves to draw out.

Each calf is fitted with an electronic collar, allowing animal identification. The calf comes into the bail drinks and then leaves.

The collar reader keeps track of calf-feeding behaviour and an alarm will be raised if any are not feeding.

Once a calf has drunk the programmed quantity, it cannot drink again for 12 hours because the machine recognises the signal from the transponder and stops the milk supply. There appears to be little problem with training the calves to feed.

Four calves can be fed automatically at a time. Rations can also be varied for each calf.

The machine appeals because of its ease and because the calves can feed individually without the risk of other calves interrupting and fighting for milk.

Set up

Noelene Taylor says her mobs of up to 70 calves are housed in what was a 6-bay shed. To fit the feeder theyve had to remove one of the bays. She says power and water are a necessary part of the set up and its recommended that you think about some kind of power backup in the event of power loss.

Colin Gibbs - the technical guy for these units - says they can install the calf feeders into just about any rearing set up.

The Taylors have a four bail unit along with the mixer system and the other paraphernalia but you can get bigger and smaller systems.

Why and Wherefores

The system has essentially been installed as a prototype on the Taylors farm. Because of the costs involved it is perhaps more ideally suited for a larger scale dairying set up.

Noelene says shes reared calves for 30 years and shes loving not having to fight with them each morning and afternoon. She says the unit basically runs itself, although there have been some technical issues. Theres also no heavy lifting of calf formula, buckets and other paraphernalia.

All shes got to do is make sure the formula/ milk powder hopper is always full.

Noelene says the machine appealed because of the reduction in labour and she can see the potential for better calf quality. The distributors also say the calves are more uniform because theyre all getting exactly the same amount of feed.

Other Pluses

The automated system is said to be a more natural process. One of its proclaimed selling points is that it allows for more stock observation.

It also becomes a one-person job, rather than two people taking up to three hours a day.

If there is a health issue with an individual calf the units can be set up to add electrolytes to the mix for that calf.

On the negative side these units have copped some criticism from traditionalists who say that automatic rearers mean the animals get no human contact and those calves coming back into the herd as replacements wont be as easy to handle.

Bell-Booth Group, the distributors of the units, says theyve seen no evidence of that.

They point out that the other big selling point of the units is that they helps farmers avoid the annual difficulty of finding labour for dairy farms, especially around spring.

Feed Rations.

The Taylors are feeding whole milk in two, two-litre feeds (made available in half litre rations) until 42 days. Queen Of Calves is added to the milk at 200g/day from 21 days old.

Queen of Calves is made from land and marine plant extracts to nourish the calves, and is also sold by Bell-Booth.

Clean Up

The feeder not only houses a mixing station it also has automatic washing and each delivery line is rinsed after each calf visit. If a bulk milk supply is used the machine can be programmed to clean this line also.

Calves are housed in pens with bark bedding until about 10 weeks old, with the ability to wander outside. The bark is replenished just about every week, along with a disinfectant spray once a week.

The Taylors are targeting no more than 2% calf deaths and he says they are achieving that.

Rotavirus had been a challenge but the cows were vaccinated against it, and this prevented a challenge for the calves. Only half the herd is vaccinated and because whole milk is used the protection is passed on to all calves. The vaccine costs about $5/cow.


The cost of the automated feeder to be $10.40/calf (at 300 calves annually) over 15 years, a typical life expectancy of the machine. This includes the electronic collars.

These units are designed for larger dairy farm operations.