Automatic feeders for cattle are one of the great ways in which technology has improved the life of a dairy farmer. There are now so many day-to-day tasks on a farm that can be automated, freeing the farmer to focus on less-routine things. Let’s look at the details, benefits, and possible disadvantages of implementing feed automation for the cattle on your farm.
Automatic cattle feeders are a great way to ensure your cattle get the right amount of food regularly throughout the day. They can help cut costs because you need less labor on your dairy farm, and because it only releases the required amount of food, your cows won’t over-eat and waste food.
Feed automation for cattle is a relatively new trend, but it’s implemented in various ways. Every manufacturer will add their own features or options to their design as they see fit, and there are even ways to build your own at home using an Arduino. It can be somewhat confusing, so here’s everything you should know about automatic feeders for your cattle.
Different Types Of Automatic Feeders For Cattle
There are four basic types of feed automation for cattle, with varying implementations of each. The four primary categories are:
Rail-Guided Feed Wagons
The standard rail-guided feed wagon is the most-implemented example of an automatic feeder. The concept is simple but effective, so farms that already have them implemented won’t easily change to a different method.
Though there are different implementations, the basic principle is the same: you install a rail in your barn or feeding area, with a wagon that slowly moves back and forth along the rail for a pre-determined time. The wagon has containers full of food for the cattle to eat.
There are feed-mixing wagons that dispense feed into the rail-bound wagon using hoppers. Computerized hoppers allow you to program how much feed they should distribute to maintain the quota and avoid overfeeding.
Some rail-guided wagons don’t have containers for the cattle to eat from directly; they have dispensers that release a portion of feed into the cattle’s feeding troughs.
Though the system is simple, it’s pretty complex to install and get running as it should. But once it’s working, it’s incredibly reliable and efficient, saving you many hours of labor. This is why most farmers with such a system on their dairy farms would be hesitant to replace it with anything more modern.
Conveyor Belt Feeders
Another automatic cattle-feeding solution that’s been popular for many years is the conveyor belt feeder. Unlike rail-guided wagons, conveyor belts are stationary solutions, making them safer in some ways, though they still have moving parts.
In a conveyor belt feeder, you have bale openers or tower silo cutters that automatically dispense the feed onto the moving conveyor belt. You can even install in-line mixing vessels to mix the feed as it’s getting loaded on the belt, automating the process even more.
Once the feed is on the conveyor belt, it carries it over the feeding troughs, where plows push some of the feed off the belt and into each trough.
Conveyor belt feeders are even more straightforward than rail-guided wagons, but the installation is more intrusive, potentially forcing you to shut one of your barns while installation is in progress.
Self-Propelled Feeding Robots
Self-propelled feeding robots are becoming increasingly popular, but they are still relatively new to the scene.
The word “robot” here simply means requiring little (or no) additional input or assistance once configured. You have a machine similar to the rail-guided wagon, but instead of getting power and guidance from the rail, it follows a small electrical wire in the floor or uses sensors to determine its position.
The machine receives its feed load from stationary mixing vessels, similar to the other feeders. Once fully loaded, it starts to move along the length of the barn, propelled either by a diesel engine (in older models) or an electric motor and rechargeable batteries. It dispenses feed in correct amounts into the feeding troughs on both sides of the alley.
Self-propelled feeders are more complex devices than the other types, but they are often the easiest to install since you don’t need rails or conveyors. Depending on the model you get, they can also take up less space in your barn.
Stationary Automatic Feeders
Stationary automatic cattle feeders are a relatively new trend with particular use cases. They don’t make sense on every type of farm, but there are situations where they are ideal.
These feeders never move and don’t have any external moving parts, setting them apart from any other examples. They are massive feed containers with built-in troughs. You load the pre-mixed feed in any way you prefer, either manually or with a mixer. The feeder will dispense a set amount of food into the built-in troughs on a pre-set schedule.
The automatic stationary feeder usually makes a bleeping sound or an alarm when it starts dispensing the food, letting the cattle know it’s feeding time. They quickly get used to this routine and get to know the sound. If they are in an open field, they come running when the siren blares.
These devices are simple to install (virtually no installation required), and you can often transport them quickly enough on the back of a pickup truck, but they are pretty technical. However, if you have mechanical and electronic know-how, you can build one yourself.
These stationary feeders are ideal for smaller farms, though you can just as easily use them in larger dairy farms. Especially free-range farms can get a lot of benefits from having a few of these. Though they are often quite expensive, you can get them for much cheaper if you want to try building one yourself.
Advantages Of Feed Automation For Cattle
The University of Milan did an in-depth study of the efficiency of automatic cattle feeders and their advantages for dairy farm. The study involved 18 farms of varying sizes across Europe, including Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, to get the broadest possible range of results in well-known and productive cattle farming regions.
They found that feed automation held the following advantages for dairy farms:
Most Feed Components Work Well With Automation
Ten different types of feed work well with all of the automatic feeding systems mentioned above. The four most popular feeds are:
You can use almost any type of feed in an automated system.
Automation Systems Are Easy To Use
Most farmers agree that the systems are easy to use and understand, even if they require a bit of a familiarization period. Especially the robotic automation systems that are controlled with computer screens could take a little getting used to, as some of them have small screens and their controls aren’t always intuitive, depending on the brand you buy.
Of course, the more basic systems, like the stationary feeders and conveyor belt systems, are much easier to use than the rail-guided wagons and robots.
The Machines Are Reliable And Functional
Most automatic cattle feeding systems have been in development or active use for many years or decades, which means that most complications and difficulties have been ironed out. You must perform essential maintenance, like regular cleaning and servicing engines or moving parts. But if you do this regularly, your machines should keep working for a long time.
Feeding Automation Requires Less Labor
The University of Milan’s study found that feeding automation systems can save you so much labor that you may not have to employ more workers. As an example, the university’s statistics point out the following:
Farm with 60 Animals
(Manpower Minutes per Day)
Farm with 120 Animals
(Manpower Minutes per Day
These averages show that, even though small farms can benefit from feeding automation, the benefit increases exponentially as cattle numbers increase. So, larger farms stand to benefit far more from implementing an automatic cattle feeding system than smaller farms.
Feeding Automation Saves Time
As a direct result of the savings on labor, many farmers have noticed that they have more free time to do other things that the farm needs. For example, a farmer who used to go to the barn to feed the cows at 4 AM now prepares the machine the night before and checks that everything is in order, then only goes to the barn at 6 AM as the feeding finishes. That extra time can be spent either doing other things on the farm or relaxing, which is just as important.
You Can Get An Automatic Cattle Feeder That Suits your Farm
No cattle feeder is tailor-made for your farm or scenario, but there’s an excellent chance that you will be able to find one that works perfectly for your farm. Even the stationary feeders can work in almost any scenario if you get enough of them. For example, if you buy (or build) multiple stationary feeders and line them up in your barn, the feeding problem is solved.
Automatic Cattle Feeders Take Up Less Space
In many farms, installing an automatic feeder will clear up room in your barn that feed preparation, feeding tables, or wide troughs would usually take up. Some farmers use this additional space to make wider alleys or provide more space for the cows to walk. Either way, the extra space improves the experience in the barn.
Automation Could Lead To Lower Stress Levels In The Cows
Some farmers have noted that the stress levels in their cows have decreased considerably after implementing automatic feeding. The reason is tied to the fact that the automatic feeders can feed the cattle multiple times daily, removing hunger and stress from the equation.
Disadvantages Of Automatic Feeders For Cattle
As great as automatic cattle feeders are, you must remember some possible disadvantages.
Feeding Automation Systems May Be Expensive
The initial investment in an automatic cattle feeding system can run between $87,000 and $185,000, depending on the type you opt for. Since most of these systems require installing some feed mixers and adjusting the silos and barns, this raises the price well beyond the cost of the machine itself.
Some machines use solar power, requiring an even more significant initial investment if you don’t already have solar power on your farm.
There are cheaper options. For example, stationary automatic feeder units can be much more affordable and don’t need expensive installations. Some are on the market for approximately $6,000, and you can save even more if you build them yourself. They don’t have all the advantages others have; for example, they can take up more space. But the convenience and price are worth it.
You May Have Downtime While Installing
Because many of these devices require quite a sizeable overhaul of your barn, you may have to temporarily stop the barn’s operation while you do the installation. This is an inconvenience and could lead to a loss of productivity.
Thankfully, the installation shouldn’t take more than a few days. This is why dairy farmers prefer to implement feed automation when building a new barn or overhauling an old one. The changes you must implement are simply too significant to do with the animals present.
A Considerable Learning Curve
Some of these machines are more complicated than others. A conveyor belt is simple enough, but the more complex machines have computer screens and custom software that are often not intuitive or easy to learn. This is one of those scenarios where you really should read the manual; otherwise, you risk your cattle not getting fed on time.
It can be challenging to learn and even more difficult to get used to the new system and routine. However, when it’s time to teach others how to do it, most farmers will have their patience tested thoroughly.
Inherent Dangers In Automated Technology
There are some inherent dangers when it comes to automated technology. You have moving parts that can’t understand what happens when someone or something gets in the way. Animals can be very unpredictable at times, and you want to ensure the safety of your cattle.
A group of German researchers did a study in 2018 about the dangers of automated feeding systems (AFS) and found that most problems can be solved by installing radar sensors or 2D laser scanners in the machines. This lets them detect if something gets in the way so they can take the necessary steps to avoid injury or damage.
But while we are waiting for that to be implemented in mainstream automation machines, you should get your automatic cattle feeder professionally installed by a reputable company. The installers know what to look for and how to ensure safe operation to protect you, your workers, and your cattle.
Automatic feeders for cattle are great for dairy farms of any size, but because of the costs involved in the installation, they only give a great return on investment to larger farms. Only automatic stationary feeders offer real benefits to small farms (60 animals or less), and then it’s only in the form of timesaving. But for a larger dairy farm, installing feed automation should be a logical step.