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New Zealand's first purpose-built calf feeding system

New Zealand's first purpose-built calf feeding system has been developed

Inspired by a European farming system, but with an understanding that New Zealand farms are different, a local engineer has developed New Zealand's first purpose built calf feeding system. CalfSMART has the potential to reduce labour costs and lead to overall herd improvements.

New Zealand has nearly 12,000 dairy herds that rear cohorts of calves ranging in size from less than 100 to over 250. The largest 15% of New Zealand's dairy farms rear 35% of the entire country's replacement heifers. Traditionally, calf rearing has been carried out by farming families, however in recent years as farms grow in size this work has increasingly been carried out by a migratory workforce.

CalfSMART's general manager, Ben Neal, spent five years working with dairy farmers to develop New Zealand's first purpose-built automated calf feeding system. Raised on a diary farm near Dannevirke, he completed a BEng (Automation) from Massey University and an NZCE Mechanical. He worked as a field engineer in the UK and in business development in the offshore oil and gas sector.

"I saw what was happening in Europe. I knew, having grown up on a dairy farm, that their products weren't strong enough for Kiwi farms and they were built for smaller cohorts of calves. If New Zealand dairy farmers are to benefit from the cost savings and improved calf rearing that you can achieve through an automated system then we needed a Kiwi solution - something that is tough enough and also intelligent enough to fix itself."

The CalfSMART system can feed up to 200 calves in a standard four stall unit and is scalable up to 20 stalls which will feed 1000 calves.

The CalfSMART is made with high-grade Stainless steel, the stalls, the hopper, the tanks and the control panels. It's a locally built product that we'll install for you, we offer local support, training and advice. This is our sole product, our technicians have one job, one area of expertise - no other supplier offers that," says Mr Neal.

The CalfSMART is self-cleaning, it has a built-in redundancy functionality to self diagnose blockages and perform automatic pressure washes processes. It automatically detects feed line leakages, blown pump hoses, low water pressure and system wiring breaks (shorts) etc - sending you an alert.

Mr Neal presented his idea to the BCC, business development organisation, which helped him refine his product and find investors, including Rural Fuel Founder, Larry Ellison, New Zealand Venture Investment Fund and MIG Angles.

The prototype will be presented to the public for the first time at the Central District Field Days (Stand D16) and the first machines will be available for purchase following the National Field Days in time for the calf-rearing season.

Mr Neal says CalfSMART uses the latest intuitive technology to provide a reliable, consistent feed, it uses RFID tags to identify and weigh each calf at each feed, allowing you to monitor and benchmark progress.

The webserver interface provides you the ability to operate the system remotely, you'll be able to monitor calf feeding and weight data and if you want you can benchmark your progress against other farmers.

"Interestingly, the automated system is," says Mr Neal "closer to how nature intended. In the natural environment, a calf will feed sporadically throughout the day. In a shed, calves feed twice a day, this can have implications given the calf's stomach is only so big and the little ones have to compete. CalfSMART allows the calf to pick and choose - just like nature intended. However, unlike in the natural environment all calves have the chance at feeding - even the little ones."

"Anyone who has raised calves knows that inconsistent feeding, cold milk, and environmental stress can lead to nutritional scours making calves weak and susceptible to infectious scours. Healthy calves put on weight faster, allowing them to reach their full potential earlier."

Mr Neal says the farmers his team have spoken to are always nervous about new staff and their standards regarding calf rearing. "The time it takes to get staff up to speed, there's always the nagging thought of what your staff are up to when you're away, and nearly every season they move on and you have to start again. CalfSMART reduces labour costs and provides reassurance, taking some of the stress out of calf rearing."

"Another bonus of CalfSMART," says Mr Neal, "is that having developed it alongside Kiwi dairy farmers our team has built up a wealth of knowledge on calf rearing and we're only too happy to share our learnings."


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