In the first weeks of in life, dairy animals are vulnerable to disease, building strength to grow, and learning how to use and interact with their environment. Because of these needs, we devote significant time and attention to helping them navigate the time as they prepare to be weaned.
Getting a calf to weaning age can incite a sigh of relief. That doesn’t mean the job is done, though. We can’t forget to pay attention to how a calf progresses through weaning and the weeks after. All of that preweaning care can be undone if the transition off of milk goes poorly.
Helping calves thrive during weaning revolves around the need to reduce stress in what is a very stressful time. Calves are not only dealing with the stress of a diet change, but they’re probably moving to a new housing environment, perhaps with new animals, and might be receiving health treatments such as dehorning or vaccinations.
If stacked on top of each other, those events that are stressful individually can become overwhelming for a young animal and cause poor performance or disease.
Instead, we want to change as few things as possible at one time, advised Iowa State dairy extension specialist Gail Carpenter. For example, can you leave calves in their hutches for a week after weaning before moving them to a new barn? Or put calves in pairs or small groups before moving them to large groups? Spacing out the changes allows calves more time to adjust to each stressor on its own before having to deal with a new one.
Another way to ease the changes around this time is to use step-down weaning. This gradual removal of milk helps calves adjust to a new diet and is also a good way to build up starter intake.
Taylor Klipp, a graduate student at Iowa State and the dairy’s calf manager, explained on the Dairy News and Views podcast episode that they have seen great benefits from using step-down weaning. In a group of dairy-beef crossbred calves that were reduced from two feedings of 4 quarts of milk per day to one feeding at 49 days old, starter intake doubled by the end of the week. By the time calves were completely off milk at 56 days old, starter intake continued to rise, said Klipp.
Limiting stress in weaned calves also means not introducing them to new stressors. When calves move to a new barn, be sure the facilities have adequate ventilation and bedding so that disease pressure is not added that way, Carpenter reminded.
Providing a smooth weaning transition comes down to observation, she added. Find what works for your calves and use it. At the same time, avoid what is not helping your calves be healthy. “You can always tell what the calves are saying if you’re listening,” Carpenter concluded.