Achieving a healthy weaning transition

Penn State Extension's Cassie Yost

A gradual transition from liquid feed takes time

Are your calves experiencing a decrease in performance once they are transitioned off of milk? Perhaps you are seeing an increase in illnesses, a drop in weight gain, or your calves are just having a hard time adjusting to their new feeding system. There could be a number of different factors affecting the performance of your calves. Ensuring that your calves are achieving a healthy weaning transition is key to their nutritional success as they grow and develop. The following are some key elements of the weaning period to take into consideration if you are experiencing setbacks during this critical time.

 





 

Whether you are feeding whole milk or a milk replacer, quantity fed is going to affect your weaning transition. Once a day feeding, 2X, 3X, or ad lib feeding is going to have an impact on how soon your calves begin to consume starter grain. Research has shown that there is an inverse relationship between milk consumption and starter intake. More simply, the more milk being consumed, the less grain is being consumed. If your calves are constantly being satisfied with milk feedings, they are less likely to start to nibble at starter that is available to them. Starter grain should be available to calves by day three of life. Although most calves will not begin to eat grain at this age, it is important to make it available for consumption.

Remember that starter intake is key for rumen development. In order for calves to be able to handle the switch from a liquid diet to a more coarse diet consisting of grains, and eventually forages, their rumens need to be properly developed. In order for adequate development to occur, a calf needs to be consuming at least one half of a pound of grain for 21 – 28 days to grow a suitable level of rumen papillae. This papillae growth will aid in nutrient absorption in the rumen to be utilized by the growing calf. Without adequate development, a calf’s rumen is not equipped to handle the nutritional change that comes with weaning and will not be able to utilize the nutritional components of their new diet. There are numerous kinds of starter feeds available for calves. Regardless of the type, a calf starter should never be dry, dusty, or moldy. A good quality starter will be palatable, smell and taste appealing to the calf, and should always be fresh and readily available to encourage intake.

 





 

A gradual transition from liquid feed takes time. Many farms are limited for space for growing calves and depending on the time of year and influx of calves, some calves may be moved out of their hutches sooner than anticipated. Although this is a common problem for many farms, it is important to give that transitioning calf adequate time to ensure she is ready for her big move. According to the USDA, in 2014 31.1% of farms were weaning their calves at nine weeks of age or later. This number has grown from the 2007 data that showed only 25.6% were weaning at nine weeks or later. In 2014, 18% were weaning at six weeks and 9.2% weaned their calves at seven weeks. There were also a total of 7.5% weaning at five weeks or less. So as you can see, there is still a great variability in weaning times across the country. While management practices, farm size, and labor availability may be some of the factors affecting weaning age, it is important to

remember that the actual transition time to wean a calf off of milk should be a gradual process where calves are cut back on the amount of milk they receive each day. The most common example would be with farms feeding milk two times a day who cut back to one feeding for a full week before stopping milk feeding all together. Whatever your feeding program, it is important to decrease the amount of milk being fed so calves can learn to fill this new void with the starter grain that is available. If space is a limiting factor on your farm, consider decreasing your age of weaning and offering this period of decreased milk availability sooner to see how the calves respond. Earlier weaning times mean more money saved, especially when feeding a milk replacer.

Another important recommendation is to allow calves time following weaning to remain in their same environment for at least a week for close monitoring. During this time, pay attention to grain intake and overall health of the calf. If calves are eating at least two pounds of grain a day once weaned, they should handle their next transition well. When the decision is made to move calves into a new environment, be sure to limit the amount of stressors during this time. Do not

make an environment change, a timed vaccination, and a nutritional change all at once. Try to space out the stressors for the calf. If you are grouping calves together, make the environmental change but continue to offer the same diet while the calves become acclimated to their environment and their pen mates. Once a few days have passed, then make the change to their diet. Time vaccinations when calves are least stressed to allow for the vaccination to work properly.

Remember through the entire weaning process, a stressed calf can turn into a sick calf very quickly. A stressed calf with an underdeveloped rumen can lead to disasters in your weaning groups. Limiting stress and allowing that calf to slowly adjust to changes can be the difference in the success of your weaning program. If you are experiencing problems with your transition calves or have other questions about your feeding program, please contact me, Cassie Yost at clm275@psu.edu or call 717-263-9226 to discuss ways we can improve the health of your calves.

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