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Make smart investments for your growing heifers

Cody Yanzick and Ann Hoskins for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 March 2018
Heifers at feed bunk

Calves are naturally herd animals, but the transition period is often the first time they are grouped with others. This brings about a set of challenges that need specialized attention from calf managers.

Calves typically move from individual pens or very small groups into transition groups after weaning. These groups vary greatly and can range from six to 100 calves in a group, depending on the size and location of the calf ranch or transition facility. The following important management and feed considerations come to mind when designing a calf transition program.



Limiting stress on calves can offer some of the greatest paybacks in terms of health and performance.


Calves need to be treated with care and calmness from a health and well-being standpoint. All calf employees should be well trained in animal handling. Leading by example is often the best teacher, so make sure your actions portray what you expect from employees.

Group size

Based on field experience with a wide variety of calf operations, it seems groups of eight to 10 calves work well – at least for the initial transition period of three to four weeks. Moving to a larger group after this point seems to provide better results than putting animals in large groups right away. It is always best to give these animals a couple of weeks to adjust before moving again.

Constant movement is stressful. When calves must exert energy to deal with stress, that’s wasted energy that cannot be used for growth.

Calf health

Because pen moves and grouping cause stress for calves, they are often more vulnerable to disease pressure. Abrupt diet changes will also cause stress. Thus, it’s important to closely monitor newly moved transition calves to catch any early signs of disease. Work with your veterinarian to decide what course of action best fits your operation.


In addition, innovative, new feed products combine powerful direct-fed microbials with mannan oligosaccharides and a balance of vitamins and trace minerals. These products can be used during the transition period to promote feed intake and intestinal function.

This investment could quickly pay off in terms of fewer treatments and better performance from the growing animals.


The calf’s need for good bedding doesn’t get left behind in the hutch. A bedded pack of straw or sawdust works well compared to freestalls for these young animals. Calves don’t seem able to adapt to freestalls until they reach 4 to 5 months old.

Most calves have never been exposed to concrete or bare ground, so they need to “gain a footing” on new surfaces. When moving calves into transition pens with scrape alleys, slowly walk the calves back and forth from the bedded pack to the feed area to help acclimate them to the change.

In some cases, a small amount of bedding on the scrape alley can offer comfort and familiarity until the calves become comfortable with the new pen.


A wide variety of types and styles of calf transition barns have proven successful. We have seen modified open-front barns work particularly well. In these systems, the curtain sidewall splits in the middle so it can open to the top or the bottom. This helps you control air quality and limit weather-related challenges.


Regardless of barn style, it must be well ventilated, provide easy access for handling and moving calves, and allow for easy cleaning and bedding. That’s why retrofitting old barns for calf pens can present challenges. If you are using an old facility, work closely with your calf consultant to design pens that allow for adequate ventilation and bedding in all seasons.

Feedbunk design

Young calves have a hard time stretching through bars to reach feed on the ground, especially if they are used to eating from raised pails. A raised bunk at the proper neck height with slant bars works well. Drive-by feeding with slant bars can work equally well, but feed push-ups become more critical. We discourage use of headlocks with these young calves, as the noise seems to scare them and make them reluctant to use the headlocks.

Drive by feeding with slant bars work well


Water must be easily accessible, preferably on the fenceline, as calves can find them with less effort. Eliminate any barriers or obstacles that may deter calves from drinking.


This can be a highly debated area, but transition calf rations need to be designed with both quality and feed availability in mind. Forage quality is as important to the young calf as it is to a high-producing dairy cow. When applicable, a TMR works well for transition calves and throughout the grower phase from weaning to 6 months.

The following is a typical ration program that has worked well. This gradual change from starter to TMR helps prevent stress that can occur with abrupt diet changes. Note: Total intakes increase in each feeding phase. Work with your nutritionist to develop a program that fits your operation.

  • Feed the same starter grain as calves received in individual pens for seven to 10 days after moving to group pens.

  • Switch to a transition TMR, which is a blend of the starter grain and a stage 1 grower TMR, for seven to 10 days.

  • Feed a stage 1 grower from 3 to 4 months old (or starting with 200-pound calf). This grower incorporates dry hay, haylage, corn silage and concentrate.

  • Feed a stage 2 grower from 4 to 6 months old (or starting with 275-pound calf). This grower contains a higher amount of forage than the stage 1 grower.

Ration ingredients

Calves seem to prefer larger particles in their feed, resulting in greater intakes. As such, we advise coarsely rolled corn versus finely rolled corn as the grain source. Pelleted supplements and concentrates have an advantage over meal feeds.

These concentrates should be made with a high-quality protein source, such as soybean meal or roasted soybeans. Dry hay – whether it’s a grassy alfalfa or alfalfa hay – should be similar in quality to the hay used for your milk cows.

Corn gluten feed, soyhulls and beet pulp are common byproducts used in calf TMRs to provide energy, protein and digestible fiber for growing calves. Your nutritionist can help you source and incorporate byproduct ingredients that give you the best feed cost per pound of gain.

Avoid feeding very wet haylage, corn silage or byproducts. Calves seem to have better intakes when drier ingredients are used. This is especially important during the summer months, as wet feeds can heat and spoil more quickly.

Finally, feeding an ionophore can help control coccidiosis in calves and, thus, improve their health, performance and feed efficiency. Work with your veterinarian to select the program that fits your operation best.

The investment pays off

Calves are critical to the success of your future dairy business. They need to be treated with care and respect. Investing this time and attention now can pay dividends when healthy, strong heifers enter your milking herd.  end mark

PHOTO 1: The transition period is stressful for heifers. Management, nutrition and housing play a major role in their success. However, doing right by them now can yield dividends down the road.

PHOTO 2: Young calves have a hard time stretching through bars to reach feed on the ground, especially if they are used to eating from raised pails. A raised bunk at the proper neck height with slant bars works well. Courtesy photos.

Ann Hoskins is a calf products coordinator with Vita Plus.

  • Cody Yanzick

  • Dairy Specialist
  • Vita Plus
  • Email Cody Yanzick