A RECENT addition to the Nangkita Dairies operation is helping reduce labour needs, improve animal welfare and increase calf health.
Fourth generation dairyfarmer Chelsea Donhardt, Mount Compass, is responsible for the health, breeding, genetics and calf rearing of 800 cows milked across two of her family's farms.
Previously they had fed the calves milk that came straight from the dairy on the back of an unrefrigerated ute, at risk of curdling in hot weather or going cold during winter.
"It was very labour intensive," she said.
"Once the calves left the calving shed at 10 days old, they would be fed about five litres of milk per day using a calf feeder trailer with 50 teats around it."
Mrs Donhardt said there was nothing horribly wrong with their old system - it successfully raised calves for 20 years - but she was concerned they would be left behind if they did not innovate the farm.
"We felt we could do this better and in April last year, we bought two DeLaval calf feeding units with eight calf feeding stations, which has the capacity to feed up to 200 calves at a time," she said.
"Any time of the day, a calf can come into the station, the black box scans its National Livestock Identification System tag. If it's allowed to drink, the slide will open to expose the teat and it will trigger a sensor in the pump when the calf sucks.
"It is all controlled by the little computer on the side of each unit and the milk is freshly prepared in little quantities of 400 millilitres at a time, as the calf wants it.
"The milk still comes from the dairy once a day but in this system it's stored cold in the vat with hoses running to each unit."
Mrs Donhardt said for the first 10 days of life, the calves have access to two feed stations in a shed and stay there until they are fully trained with the system.
"They still get moved out to large paddocks after the 10 days across three paddocks, which each have access to two of the feed stations - ran by the computer - at all times," she said.
"At birth, our calves start off by getting 4.5L/day, the computer slowly ramps that up over the first two weeks of their lives, getting a little more each day until they reach a maximum of 9L/day.
"It stays at 9L/day until they are eight-weeks-old where the computer automatically drops the litres to wean them for you at 10-weeks, when they get cut off from the milk."
Mrs Donhardt said the system allowed the ability to set limitations using the computer to control how often they can feed and how much they get per visit to the feeder.
"The setting I am on at the moment means if the calves are really keen, they can come every 2.5 hours and get 1L of milk so they could get up to nine, 1L/day feeds if they chose or if they don't come in quite as often they can get a maximum of 2.5L per meal or anywhere in between," she said.
Mrs Donhardt says a big benefit of the automatic calf feeder is the effect it has had on the animals themselves.
"They get multiple warm, small feeds, all through the day and night just like they would on their mum and because you're feeding them such small meals instead of slug feeding once a day, you can feed more total per day," she said.
"Because of all this, they grow faster, they're much more satisfied all throughout the day, they're a lot happier and much more able to cope with things like bad weather events."
Nangkita Dairies' Chelsea Donhardt has no regrets with transitioning the calf feeding process to the DeLaval automatic systems.
She said the automatic calf feeding system's biggest benefit to the business was the effect it had on labour.
"With the old system it use to take two to three people half a day to feed 200 calves manually by hand," Mrs Donhardt said.
"It has changed to a much easier and less physically demanding job.
"It is only a one person job now so it has saved us about $50,000 in labour per year, which is a pretty significant saving."
She said they could use those saved funds to improve their other infrastructure, such as the recently-installed robotic dairy or for other farm duties.
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