Automated calf feeders are becoming more popular as an efficient way to feed dairy calves, but they can also be a very efficient way to transmit disease such as Mycoplasma bovis or Salmonella dublin among calves. “If you want a wreck, put young calves on an automated calf feeder where proper maintenance and calibration of the equipment is not done and there is a problem with cleanliness and sanitation,” says veterinary diagnostician Don Sockett, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, University of Wisconsin.

“Ideally, the automated calf feeder should be calibrated monthly with the feeding lines replaced at that time. The nipple should be cleaned and disinfected at least once preferably twice a day and replaced weekly.”

Sockett says it’s also important to know if these young calves have Mycoplasma or Salmonella problems because, “We know that with Mycoplasma bovis, the earlier the calf is colonized with the bacterium, the more adverse the outcomes. If there are enough sources from where the calves are from, eventually they’re going to have a Salmonella dublin problem if they don’t already have one.”

And in that situation, Sockett says, “You have got to make darn sure that you don’t put those calves on those automated calf feeders too young, or you’re going to have problems.” 

Sockett adds that two problems the automated calf feeder systems have is that calves that are grouped on them are not in an “all-in/all-out” situation – calves of different ages are feeding from them at the same time. The second problem is that because they are labor- and time-saving, producers want to get those calves on those automated calf feeders as soon as possible. “It’s really hard to tell a person who has invested that kind of money for an automated calf feeder that he/she should wait until the calves are doing well and they’re two weeks of age or older before you put them on it.”

If a producer is going to have an automated calf feeder and calves will be put on it before they are two weeks of age, he/she has to do a much better job than the average dairyman for things like colostrum management, umbilical disinfection, and cleanliness and sanitation, including what goes on in the maternity pens.”

This information is from a Bovine Veterinarian dairy diagnostics roundtable sponsored by Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health.