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It’s time to hit reset on weaning with autofeeders

Tom Earleywine for Progressive Dairy Published on 02 July 2019
dairy calf

Capturing calf growth potential is one of the greatest benefits of automatic calf feeders. But by the time weaning comes around, we tend to take our eyes off the ball in a hurry to move calves out the door.

Rushing the weaning process can put pre-weaning weight gains in jeopardy. It’s time to refocus our attention on the autofeeder weaning process to give calves the time they need to transition into healthy, productive animals. 

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Refocus your autofeeder weaning program with these four tips: 

1. Wean by growth, not age

Many autofeeder owners rely on the feeder to preschedule the weaning date based on calf age or how long they’ve been on the feeder. But age alone isn’t enough to determine a calf’s readiness for weaning. 

For example, a calf that experienced a health challenge early in life or had a low birthweight may take more time to grow and fully develop their rumen. Calves weaned before they’re ready can fall even further behind post-weaning, which can impact longevity and milk production. 

Growth is the ideal benchmark to determine when calves are ready for weaning. Weigh and measure your calves at birth and before weaning to ensure they double their birthweight and achieve at least 4 to 5 inches of hip height growth before starting the weaning process.

2. Implement step-down weaning

Calves on autofeeders may consume less starter initially because they receive the necessary nutrients for growth and maintenance from the milk diet. A step-down weaning process gives calves more time to adjust to the reduction in milk and naturally increase starter intake.

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Calves on an unlimited feeding system may drink as much as 20 liters per day. Start weaning by restricting calves to 12 liters per day for seven to 10 days. Then gradually reduce the total volume per day for at least one week before weaning calves completely.

Follow a similar step-down weaning process for calves on a restricted diet of 12 liters per day. Reduce the total volume per day to 6 liters for seven to 10 days. Then gradually reduce the total amount per day for at least one week before weaning calves completely.

weighing and measuring calves

3. Extend the weaning timeline

Many autofeeder owners start weaning early rather than allowing enough time to accommodate a step-down weaning process. However, weaning too early means calves will not reach their growth potential and might not be ready to go off milk.

The rumen is still developing and isn’t ready to handle an all-dry feed diet until calves are at least 8 weeks old. And calves that are weaned early have less time to take advantage of the growth benefits from a full potential diet. Wait until calves are fully ready to wean (based on growth) before starting the step-down weaning process.  

An extended weaning timeline isn’t always possible based on facilities and space needs. At the very least, ensure calves are healthy and have adequate starter intake before initiating weaning.

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4. Increase water access

Starter intake is essential to avoid growth slumps during and after weaning. And water intake directly impacts starter intake. Analyze your water mineral levels and bacteria counts at least once a year to ensure your calves are getting the best available.

Provide calves with additional water access to help boost starter consumption. Add an extra water tub in each autofeeder pen leading up to and during weaning. Regularly clean waterers to encourage drinking and help avoid disease spread. 

Determining exact water and starter intake for individual calves is tricky with group feeding. Monitor calves closely during weaning to ensure they have an uptick in water and starter intake. Wait to start weaning calves until they are consuming 3 pounds of starter per calf per day. 

Refocus your autofeeder weaning program to ensure maximum growth and a successful transition to the post-weaned phase. Work with your local automatic calf feeder specialist to implement these four tips on your farm.  end mark

This article is part two of a two-part article series about automatic calf feeders. Read part one here.

Tom Earleywine has a Ph.D. in dairy science from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Tom Earleywine
  • Tom Earleywine

  • Director of Nutritional Services
  • Land O'Lakes
  • Email Tom Earleywine

PHOTO 1: Implement a step-down weaning process to increase starter intake naturally.

PHOTO 2: Weights and measurements are an important tool to ensure each calf meets growth benchmarks before weaning. Photos courtesy of Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products Company.

Quick tips:

  • Prior to weaning, make sure calves double their birthweight, achieve at least 4 to 5 inches of hip height and are consistently eating at least 3 pounds of starter per day.
  • Gradually wean calves over at least two weeks to allow them time to adjust to an all-dry feed diet.
  • Do not fully wean calves prior to 8 weeks old.
  • Provide adequate access to fresh water during weaning.

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