Skip to main content

Four steps to stress-free and high-growth weaning in dairy calves

Dairy Calf Rearing

This is the third episode of our ‘Navigating Calf Management’ blog series designed to help UK dairy producers lay early foundations for long and productive lifecycles. This important and complex topic has been broken down into four areas, including:

Episode 1: Colostrum

Episode 2: Environment

Episode 3: Weaning

Episode 4: Calving

Having looked at the importance of colostrum and environmental management, we now look at how to manage weaning to maximise proper rumen development, avoid growth slumps and better prepare calves to transition to productive cows with minimal stress.

Weaning dairy calves can look very different from farm to farm. Facility or labour considerations might cause two farms with similar pre-weaning programmes to look vastly different. However, both farms are working toward the same outcome and know what works best for them to achieve this. This outcome is to maximise proper rumen development to avoid growth slumps and better prepare calves to transition to productive cows with minimal stress.

The first stage of a calf’s life is spent as a monogastric, as the rumen is not fully developed at birth. It is our job to nurture this rumen during the milk feeding and weaning process. During the first weeks of life, the calves rely on the nutrients obtained from milk over solid feeds. It is widely understood that solid feeds drive intakes and, therefore, calf rumen development and rumen papillae growth. However, the optimum balance between liquid feed and solid feed is crucial to get right. The transition period from a predominantly liquid diet to a solid diet is stressful for the calf.

The success of weaning is partially dependent on how you set out your weaning protocols and manage the process.

Below are 4 key steps to consider when weaning your calves to ensure a profitable calf-raising programme.  

1. Encouraging concentrate intakes pre-weaning

Choosing the correct stage to wean calves is critical. Rather than looking at calf weaning weight, weaning timing should be based on concentrate intake within healthy calves at least five weeks of age. Therefore, it is important to know how much concentrate calves are having. Concentrate intake is a good indicator of rumen development and the calf’s ability to extract energy and nutrients from the grain and forage. The recommendation is to wean calves for three consecutive days, at least, eating:

  • 1 kilogram of concentrate if the starter is >22% crude protein
  • 2 kilograms of concentrate if the starter is <22% crude protein

Fresh, ad-lib drinking water needs to be provided from birth. This encourages and optimises grain intake, and therefore rumen development and increased daily liveweight gains. Water will land in the rumen of the calf, while milk lands in the abomasum. Therefore, calves do not benefit from milk alone. In freezing temperatures, warm water should be provided two to three times per day to keep water intakes up.

During the pre-weaning stage, milk volume should not increase, as it could potentially limit grain intakes. If calves need more energy due to cooler weather or appear hungry, concentrates should be increased.

2. Transitioning off milk without energy loss while weaning

A good way to make sure all calves are individually weaned when they are ready is to remove the grain from all buckets a few days before commencing the weaning, every day adding a measured quantity of at least 1 kilogram (or 2 kilograms, % crude protein-dependent). The following day, you can identify any calves that are not eating 1 kilogram. Those calves can then be maintained on milk until they are ready.

The weaning process should be a gradual step down of milk volume over a period of 10–14 days. To facilitate the weaning, it is recommended to replace the milk feed energy with electrolyte drinks. The electrolyte drink is a good way to boost grain intake to replace the energy drop. This will ensure the calf is consuming sufficient solid feed to support maintenance and growth after weaning.

Key tips:

  • Replace evening milk meal with electrolytes for three to six days
  • Replace morning milk meal with electrolytes for three to six days
  • Weaned calf: Leave at current place for at least one to two weeks

3. Keeping things consistent to reduce stress during weaning

Stress at weaning can compromise a calf’s immune system for at least two weeks post-weaning. This makes the calves more susceptible to disease, particularly pneumonia, and reduce growth rates.

It is key to not make other management changes during the weaning process other than reducing milk and increasing concentrates. Do not move the calves or make any social changes at the time of weaning. Let them stay in the same place with the same calves for at least two weeks after weaning.

Do not make changes to the grain feed at the time of weaning. Maintain the same starter grain during this time because the calf’s rumen microbes are used to this feed. Changing this would upset the microbial balance at an already stressful time. By providing electrolyte solution in place of the milk or milk replacer, the psychological stress of not being provided the milk is minimised, and the electrolyte solution helps the calf to eat more grain. Also, avoid any stressful procedures at weaning, such as vaccinations, disbudding and castration.

4. Make gradual changes to all feed components post-weaning

The post-weaning period is just as crucial as the pre-weaning phase, as we want growth to continue, not lag due to improper weaning strategies.

It is vital to provide enough feed during the post-weaning period to maintain health and a rapid maturation rate. During this time, high levels of energy and nutrients are needed for maintenance and continued growth.

A post-weaning ration should have high protein and energy density, which means a high proportion of concentrate compared to roughages (i.e., dry hay, haylage). Base the diet on 2–3 kilograms of grower concentrate per day (14–16% crude protein). Then, increase inclusion of forage-based total mixed ration/hay accordingly.

It is essential to create a feeding programme that gradually transitions the rumen to the next ration to be fed. The starter/concentrate feed needs to be palatable, so that dry matter intake continues to increase. Try mixing the calf starter concentrate with the post-weaning concentrate for a few days, gradually increasing the post-weaning concentrate. This will help the rumen become accustomed to the new feed.

The aim is 800 grams per day to 1 kilogram of daily liveweight gain. The total diet should include 15% crude protein. Please remember to make gradual changes to all feed components over a few weeks.

Due to the high levels of concentrate during this time, water is again key for the calves to optimise the grain being fed. A weaned calf can drink 10–15 litres of water per day and up to 25 litres on a hot day. Pay attention to the location of the water troughs and the calf’s ability to learn to drink in new systems. A few additional sources of water may help the transition.

If you have any questions or require any personalised advice, please contact your local advisor or call our InTouch Hub on 0800 587 3297.