Entering Their 3rd Year of Successful Group Housing:
Western New York Farm Raising Group Housed Automated Fed Veal
by Colleen Rudolph ~ Intern at Provitello published in The Producer’s Connection Jan 2008
With the inevitable phasing out of individual stalls and tethers, the quest for new and innovative husbandry methods has swung into full gear. The industry changes are a direct result of a more involved and vocal consumer. As a result, producers are assessing their needs and options to convert to group housing.
This unique facility has taken on the role as the only milk-fed veal producer in the United States to use automated feeding technology.
With the vast technology available today, our industry has the opportunity to embrace
this know-how and incorporate it into our production systems. Although very common in Europe—and to a lesser extent Canada—this technology has been long overdue in the United States.
In 2005, a new facility was constructed in Western New York with innovation in mind. This group housing operation has been utilizing the latest technology in the production of top quality veal calves.
An Alternative for the Future:
One Company’s Quest for the Perfect System
Known as Provitello, L.L.C., this division of Grober Nutrition—a leading manufacturer of milk replacer and veal feeds—has been demonstrating exactly that for the past three years. Using Förster Technik® Stand-Alone feeders, Provitello is able to deliver multiple feedings per day to its large herd of 1,000 calves, without any increased labor input.
This unique facility has taken on the role as the only milk-fed veal producer in the U.S. to use automated feeding technology. Automated feeding simply refers to exactly that: each group of 60 calves at Provitello is fed by a computer assisted, automated feeder. These feeders run 24 hours a day, mixing and dispensing milk to stations equipped with nipples. By feeding this way it closely mimics nature, allowing the calves to suckle for their milk.
photo: Colleen Rudolph, Intern at Provitello, with the Forster machine.
Communication between the individual calf and the feeder is accomplished via an electronic transponder tagged to the calf’s ear. With this communication taking place, the calf has access to whatever settings have been preset by the farm manager into the operating system. Provitello uses a “Bio-Rhythm” feeding schedule where by a calf can drink numerous times per day at his leisure. Again, this mimics a natural setting as to how a calf would feed from its mother, yet it is controlled as to avoid any problems associated with over consumption.
Once the calves have established a good daily milk intake, Provitello implements their grain program. Working along side the milk feeder, using the same transponder, the grain feeder distributes feed according to a preset schedule. The farm staff is simply required to keep the grain bins full and check intakes, keeping in sync with Provitello’s labor friendly routine. The information to and from all feeders is communicated through a central computer where specific software presents the information in a practical manner.
After the data has been transferred, it is displayed in the office on the main computer. Using the Förster Technik® Calf Manager program, information is available to the farm staff throughout the day. The program allows the staff to analyze each calf individually, in addition to the group as a whole, twice daily just as they would observe things if they were manually feeding the calves.
photo: Provitello Staff – Roberto Ayala, Jurian Bartelse, Colleen Rudolph.
General Manager Jurian Bartelse explains, “The computer database works in
harmony with both the feeding machine and the farm staff, but the data needs to be analyzed daily to ensure the best results.” Useful facts such as total powder consumed, grain intake, and drinking speed can all be observed. However, the most widely used application pertains to the individual calf’s feeding behavior. Bartelse adds, “The most useful part of the system is the daily consumption data per calf. It allows us to see each calf’s intake for the current and previous day and make decisions based on that.” Many different figures are collected and recorded on a daily basis to assess the feeding behavior of the calves, the performance of the group, and the consistency and accuracy of the feeder itself. All of these functions work together to foresee any problems and to assist in replicating strong results. For its management purposes, Provitello uses the available technology to the utmost, but never looses sight of the fact that the human factor is irreplaceable.
Technology Vastly Different from 20 Years Ago:
Group Housing & Automated Feeding
In keeping with Provitello’s unique management style, they have been experimenting with some new concepts to enhance their housing’s performance. Two recent trials are now being incorporated into the facility’s husbandry program. This past summer, the concept of a “starter” barn was researched and tested. Featuring natural ventilation, bedded packs, and
smaller groups, calves learned to drink off the feeders with less competition while experiencing a higher level of comfort. Once calves reached four weeks of age, they were then moved to the finisher barn. “The [growth] performance of the calves was better than our traditional first four weeks, with reduced mortality as well,” recounts Bartelse. This method provided a stronger calf to work with in addition to other benefits and as a result, several starter barns are now being used.
The other concept Provitello envisioned was allowing access to outdoor pens. After seeing it
first hand while on a trip to Switzerland last year, Jurian decided to integrate the idea himself.
Incorporating what he learned, Provitello tested an outdoor area which the calves had access to for three hours per day. Tested against a control group that stayed inside, the outdoor calves were heavier and healthier at shipping time.
An experimentation of giving calves access to an outdoor area three hours daily was so successful that it will become a permanent aspect of the facility at Provitello in Elba, NY.
The success of the trial has insured that it will become a permanent aspect of the facility this coming spring.
The outdoor pens and starter barns, in addition to the automated feeders, have generated a lot of attention from a variety of groups and individuals throughout the U.S. and overseas. It has been Provitello’s hope that continued traffic through their veal barn would help dispel every myth conceived about veal production and would go a long way in educating anyone who may not know what veal is or how it is raised. As part of that philosophy they have always kept their doors open to anyone wishing to visit. University and high school classes are common visitors to their facility as well as farm groups, fellow veal producers, and some international guests. “It’s great to see the reactions of people that have never seen a veal operation,” says Bartelse, “you can almost see their opinions changing and many times they are completely fascinated.” The open door policy is what reinforces the point that there is nothing to hide.
The success of Provitello has not been built on technology alone. It is through their compassion for the animals that Provitello has and will remain successful. Young animals require constant care and attention, and that’s what they provide. “With over 30 years in calf raising experience, all nutritional, social, biological, physical and health parameters are met. It has always been our intention to exceed those basic requirements,” says Heather Copland, Marketing and Communications Manager for Grober Nutrition.
As stated in Provitello’s motto “Committed to Innovation through Technology and Compassion”
they have excelled in technology and efficiency— and continue to—but it’s their concern for the welfare of the calves that has compelled them to design a system that produces such quality animals. It is what drives them still today to continue making improvements to increase care, comfort, and compassion for the animals.
Jurian Bartelse, Manager of Provitello, in his
office checking out the readouts from their computer calf feeding program. Jurian is also a director on the American Veal Association board.
As Bartelse says, “We will never be satisfied and we will continue to push the envelope when it comes to veal calf housing and feeding.” As they strive to prove that automated feeding is a viable option for anyone, they are creating a path of possibility by demonstrating a realistic alternative.