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Sustainability starts with successful calf rearing (July/Aug 23)

Updated: Jan 16

Delegates attending TotalDairy Conference 2023 can look forward to four sessions with a renowned US-based calf-rearing specialist, who will offer a wealth of knowledge, expertise and plenty of practical take-home messages.

A passion for dairying and calf rearing has taken one of TotalDairy Conference 2023’s keynote speakers – US-based vet and calf-rearing specialist Robert James – to all corners of the globe, and his work emphasises the fundamentals of good nutrition, welfare, housing, personnel management. Dr James is giving two presentations and running two workshops, all on calf rearing, across the two-day event. So there should be something for all vets and producers, whatever their level of knowledge and expertise in this area of dairy-herd management. And what he’s set to cover will also encompass this year’s conference theme: ‘Meeting the needs of producers, consumers and cows’.

Dr James is currently working with a US-based 28,000-cow dairy herd that’s recently set up a calf-rearing business that will feed 10,000 calves. But he’s also worked with substantially smaller herds, in countries including Germany and Switzerland. “Calves require the same level and aspects of husbandry, regardless of where they are in the world,” he says. He admits to being somewhat obsessed about calves. “I am all about the calf and, ideally, the use of automated milk feeders. They’re as close you can get to feeding the calf as they would be fed in nature. That’s what they set out to duplicate – the calf nursing from the cow.

Automated systems

“Working with automated systems, and Förster-Technik, certainly changed my perception of calf rearing and nutrition and I believe that once producers see the benefits in terms of calf health and growth rates, they also begin to see the value of such systems when it comes to weaning and the rest of the heifer-rearing process,” he says.

Welfare is also improved in group housing with automated feeding – heifers are more socially adaptable. It also avoids ‘limited’ feeding, which Dr James says may encourage rumen development but can come at the expense of early-life growth. “Intensive management and feeding is better for the calf – it mimics ‘on demand’ feeding from the dam. It ensures that the calf consumes what it needs, but also offers producers greater control and the opportunity to closely monitor intakes and overall performance.”

In a manual feeding set up, young calves are typically fed twice a day – morning and evening. “And in many instances, particularly during cold weather or when facing other environmental challenges, this system may fail to meet the calf’s maintenance requirements. Automation facilitates more frequent feeding and a proactive, rather than a reactive approach, as well as greater fine-tuning. It allows rearers to make the most of that early growth advantage, by ensuring young calves’ nutritional requirements are met from birth through to weaning, and particularly during the first month of life.”

Automated feeding: frees up staff to manage calves

Automation also ‘repurposes’ labour, which is good news because a shortage of dairy labour is a concern for producers across the globe, and not only in terms of availability but also skill. “With automated feeders, calf rearers spend more time observing calves and managing youngstock, and less time on washing buckets and bottles and other menial tasks. The dairy business has a calf ‘manager’ rather than a calf ‘feeder’. ”

Dr James will also focus on weaning and will, again, highlight that automated systems help to mimic nature. “Rather than a traditional simplified approach of moving from twice to once-a-day feeding during a 10-day period, automatic systems allow rearers to take a more gradual approach that also stimulates calf-starter intake, without all the complications that would require if feeding manually,” he says.

“Reducing feed amounts and frequency, as would occur in nature, using a bucket feeding system would be extremely complicated for staff, particularly when managing large numbers of calves. Automation simplifies the feeding and weaning of individual calves. It allows producers to take a bespoke approach and achieve the best results with minimal stress and growth checks.”

Gut microbiome

Dr James will also share his knowledge and expertise on the microbiome of the calf’s gut and its important role in health and growth rates in early life. And he’ll also explore the important role of colostrum in more depth during his presentations. “It’s about much more than immunoglobulins. ‘Transition’ milk, which the dam produces during the 48 hours after calving, is also packed with hormones and other compounds including cytokines, which are signaling proteins that help control inflammation. These are key to calf health and development.

Some will also play a role in increasing the surface area and developing the calf’s gut, so it’s better able to absorb antibodies and nutrients in early life.”

The practicalities of feeding this ‘transition’ milk on units will also be explored. “It can be a challenge, depending on the facilities and systems in place, but it’s key to successful calf rearing.”

He adds that feeding ‘clean’ colostrum is important too. “A high bacterial load will reduce the level of immunoglobulin absorption, so good hygiene when handling and feeding colostrum to newborn calves is vital.”

Another area of focus during the event will be the importance of data, which is another benefit of automated feeding. “Records are key. Just two or three pieces of information can help to transform calf rearing to calf ‘management’, and this is much easier to do with automated systems.

“Keeping track of what happened today and what happened yesterday will help to pick up problems and be more proactive. Just identifying which calves drank slowly, for example, can allow pre-emptive steps to be taken in terms of treating disease and keeping calves on track. This can be done, of course, using good observational skills. But automated systems are a huge help here. “I’m really looking forward to attending the conference. I’m extremely passionate about calf rearing and helping producers to improve their systems and achieve greater success. And what I really enjoy are the post-presentation discussions. Listening to delegates share their experiences, issues, thoughts and ideas, is what drives me. I’m still learning too.

Robert James’ TotalDairy Conference sessions

Presentations (with Q&A sessions)

● Is your calf-rearing programme sustainable?

● Rethinking early-life nutrition (advanced technical) Workshops (interactive sessions with questions throughout)

● Keys to success with auto-feeders

● Managing your calf-rearing programme

Speaker biography

Robert James was a professor and the dairy extension project leader in the Dept of Dairy Science at Virginia Tech until 2016. Since ‘retiring’, Dr James now manages his dairy consulting business full time and its focus has shifted to dairy calf and heifer systems on larger farms and calf ranches throughout the US, Canada, Mexico, South America, Asia, Australia, and Europe. Since 2018, Dr James has specialised in pre-weaned dairy calves. He is a founding member of the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association and was a board member for more than 10 years. Dr James is also the author of, which is covers all aspects of calf management with a focus on automatic feeders.

TotalDairy Conference 2023 will be held at The Crown Plaza in Stratford-upon-Avon on November 8 & 9. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit Keep an eye on social media and TotalDairy Conference’s website for speaker announcements, or sign up to the event’s mailing list and ensure the latest news is delivered to your inbox. For more information visit:

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