Monday, September 8, 2014

Young Calf Volume Settings for
Computer Feeders

Remember the definition of a dilemma? It is a problem offering two possibilities, neither of which is practically acceptable.

Here we are with our computer feeder. We  have a pen of young calves. On one hand, they should be fed enough to meet their increasing nutritional needs. That may mean we schedule a high enough volume for each feeding  as well as enough feedings to meet this standard.

On the other hand, we are using the records from the computer to identify calves that are not eating their full allocation of milk replacer. We find that a significant number of calves are coming up on the "Didn't eat my allocation - check me" list. This means in this pen of youngest calves we check for unhealthy calves. This uses up quite a bit of our time and we are not finding a significant number of "sick" calves in spite of the fact they showed up on our "check calf" list.

The problem here is the extra labor used up checking calves that are not consuming their full allocation of milk replacer ("full" is defined as a threshold we chose, in this case 90 percent). We could solve this "problem" by reducing the allocations by changing the volume settings on the computer-controlled automatic feeder. Thus, fewer calves show up on the "check calf" list. But, maybe we will increase the number of calves that would be willing and able to eat more; thus, artificially limiting intakes.

Or, we could change the threshold for putting calves on the "check calf" list. Just change the setting from 90 percent to some lower number. However, this has the potential of increasing the chances of missing a calf that should have been checked to see if her health is okay.

Thus, the dilemma. We don't want calves to go hungry and we don't want to miss checking for a sick calf. But, this is the story of all our animal husbandry decisions. Not too much and not too little. Just the right amount. 

My opinion is that the solution is in the eye of the calf care person - frequent and consistent observation of the calves. With experience and the desire to build good observational skills a good calf care person knows when a calf does "not look right" and needs to be given a health exam.

By the way, a study published in the Journal of Dairy Science about using calf daily intake data to identify sick calves demonstrated what is to me a very important relationship. They found that on the basis of daily examinations of calf health, calves showed symptoms of illness one to two days BEFORE their milk intake became either inconsistent or declined. This reinforces my point of the importance of frequent and consistent observation of calves, especially during what I consider the critical first three weeks of life. Timely diagnosis and treatment of illness results in the optimum rate of recovery and the lowest cost of treatment.

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