Growing better calves: Rohe Dairy sees success with automatic calf feeders

By Melissa Holtz

Growing better calves: Rohe Dairy sees success with automatic calf feeders

When making any major change, it takes a lot of research and planning to ensure you are doing what’s best for your dairy operation. For the Rohe family of Freeport, Minnesota, the decision to switch to automatic calf feeders came with nothing but success.

“We wanted to focus on developing better calves with a sound nutritional program, and we just couldn’t do that in the hutches,” says Michele Rohe, who farms with her husband, Marvin, and his brothers Jim and Mike, on the family’s 290-cow dairy. “We are so pleased with the improvement in our calf program since making the transition four years ago.”

Getting started

The decision to install an automatic calf feeder was largely driven by labor issues. “It was getting to be too much for one person,” says Rohe. “I was making four or five trips out to the calf hutches hauling five-gallon pails to feed calves milk replacer. Then I had to feed water and starter. It was very labor intensive.”

Installing the automatic calf feeder has helped reduce their physical labor requirements and provided a beneficial uptick in calf management time. “We are spending more time monitoring our calves and can catch any challenges or issues quicker than before,” says Rohe.

She was also eager to make the switch because of the time constraints involved with individually housed calves. “Someone always had to be available twice a day to feed calves at a set time,” she says. “With the automatic calf feeders, calves can eat throughout the day and don’t have to be restricted by our schedule.”

New facilities

Before making the switch, the Rohe family toured automatic calf feeder facilities around the state to get advice. “Automatic feeders aren’t a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Rohe. “We wanted to see both the good and the bad to figure out what would work best for us and our calves.”

They ultimately decided to build a new freshening barn and convert the existing barn into the automatic calf feeder facility. The renovated barn now holds two 32×23 foot calf pens fed by one Lely automatic calf feeder. “With using an existing building, we were concerned about having to make-do with what we had, but it ended up being a huge advantage,” says Rohe.

The existing building was blessed with 12-foot ceilings – plenty of room for a positive pressure air tube ventilation system. “The ventilation in the barn has been vital to the success of how we are raising calves on the automatic feeder and has helped prevent any respiratory issues,” comments Rohe.

In addition to the ventilation system, Rohe contributes their success in keeping any health issues in check to a meticulous cleaning and sanitation routine. “We have a very clean facility,” she says. “It’s one of the things we are very proud of.” And, Rohe notes the increase in management time allows for early intervention of any health challenges.

Nutritional advantage

Rohe Dairy CalvesThe family has seen nothing but benefits to their calves and management style since switching to automatic calf feeders. But what’s the biggest advantage? “Nutrition. Definitely nutrition,” says Rohe. “Calves on the automatic feeders have access to almost twice as much volume than we were able to provide with individual feedings.”

Calves are started on the automatic feeder between 4 and 5 days of age and begin with a meal allowance of 5.5 liters of seasonal milk replacer per day. Then, calves are stepped up to 8 liters per day with 2.5 pounds of milk solids. Meal allowance is slowly reduced to 2 liters per day for the last two weeks before weaning at 48 days of age.

With this program, Rohe has also noticed her calves are eating more starter, which has contributed to their overall growth. “Before, calves were getting a bucket of starter each day, and if they ran out, they had to wait until the next feeding,” she says. “Now, they have a custom blend pellet feed from day one and can eat as much as they want. With labor restrictions, we just weren’t able to do that in individual housing.”

Future performance

Providing a higher nutrition level has allowed the farm to develop bigger, better calves ready for the next stages of development. “I’m always so impressed with how calves on the automatic feeder grow,” says Rohe. “We are seeing bigger, more well-toned calves coming into the heifer stage because they had such a good start in the calf phase.”

And these advantages have continued into the milking parlor. “Calves start off better, so they continue to develop into better animals at each stage,” says Rohe. “Our calves that were on the automatic feeders are consistently producing more milk when they enter the parlor.”

With increased performance in all stages of development, Rohe says the decision to switch to an automatic calf feeder has helped secure the future of the herd. “Our goal is to continually develop better calves,” she says. “The ability to provide more nutrition and increase our calf management time with the automatic calf feeder has helped us reach that goal.” Q

For more information, contact Melissa Holtz, technical calf nutrition manager with Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products at [email protected], Jos Melse, dairy product consultant at [email protected] or go to


Growing better calves: Rohe Dairy sees success with automatic calf feeders

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