Just like for humans, transitions cause stress for animals. For dairy animals, these types of adjustments aren’t just limited to what we call “transition cows” — calves also go through an intense transition when they are weaned. That change must be handled well to continue calves down the healthy path you have set them on through good preweaning care.
“You can undo a lot of good things you do in preweaning with a bad weaning,” described Gail Carpenter, Iowa State extension dairy specialist, during a Dairy News and Views podcast.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to weaning as farms differ in facilities, management style, and more. Avoiding a “bad” weaning means understanding what the transition should look like and what it should accomplish. How can you make this happen in the weeks leading up to and after weaning?
First, take a step back to recognize the goal of weaning. Dairy field specialist Jennifer Bentley reminded that after weaning, calves should be transitioned to a fully functional ruminant. That means they must have developed adequate rumen papillae to absorb nutrients. We want a carpet in the rumen instead of a hardwood floor, Bentley described.
A lot of weaning challenges come back to poor rumen development, continued Carpenter. Starter, forage, and water all play a role in helping calves develop that capacity so they are ready to move away from milk.
Bentley said starter grain provides energy to allow the rumen wall to grow. From there, don’t underestimate the power of water, which helps create the right environment for bacteria to develop, added graduate student Taylor Klipp. Keeping fresh, clean water in front of calves has its challenges, but it is a good tool for rumen development.
Forage also provides an opportunity to develop the rumen. During Iowa State’s dairy extension team’s Dairy Days, Bentley said they heard a lot of varied opinions from farmers around the state about feeding hay to calves. Hay does provide protein and fiber but not much energy, and it can take up a lot of space in a rumen that is not very big yet.
Still, research and anecdotes suggest hay can be beneficial. Calves also have the natural inclination to nibble on forage; think of calves eating their straw bedding. Hay can offer a more productive outlet for this non-nutritive behavior, which sometimes turns into cross-suckling. It’s another factor to weigh in finding the right calf program for your farm, Bentley said.
Sometimes forage and starter intake can be compromised for the sake of feeding more milk. Bentley noted that this is becoming more common to encourage greater growth, but she cautioned to balance milk levels with appropriate consumption of solid food so the rumen can develop. Research indicates that the effects of a higher plane of milk can be undone if calves have a significant slump after weaning, added Carpenter. Remember, slumps are often due to poor rumen development.
Balance is key in the calf program, the group summarized, and that’s particularly true for nutrition around the transitional stage of weaning. Find a system that works for your farm and helps calves develop a rumen that is ready to function beyond the milk feeding phase.