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Transitioning calves starts on day one

Michelle Sullivan for Progressive Dairy Published on 16 March 2020

A common goal of any dairy farmer is to grow healthy calves that can express their full genetic potential in the parlor. But, for all calves to become high-producing cows, they must have a successful transition from a milk-based diet to a grain and forage-based diet.

Grain intake starts the process of rumen development and is influential to a successful weaning and transition, which is why it should be offered on day one. Young calves will begin exploring grain at an early age, and the earlier grain consumption begins, the earlier rumen development starts. Let’s follow the transition of a newborn calf from hutch to post-weaning and identify key strategies you can use transitioning calves on your farm.



Getting to two pounds

Your calf grain plays a large role in the success of transitioning a calf from milk to dry feeds. Superior growth, increased intake and a successful transition can be accomplished with texturized or pelleted grains, so long as the product is designed well. Calf starter should be consistent and have minimal fines. According to research published by Penn State Extension, a rule of thumb is that calves should be consuming at least 2 pounds of starter per day for three days in a row to be weaned onto all-solid feed.

In addition to quality starter, various factors like water consumption, milk feeding programs, genetic makeup, and the management and environment the calf is exposed to all play a role in how well the calf consumes the offered grain starter.

Starter – Palatability of grain drives initial intakes and aids in initiating the rumen’s development. To drive continual increases in grain intake, and thus improve feed efficiency and cost per pound of gain, it is important to choose a calf grain that maintains a stable rumen environment as consumption increases. On the flip side, grains that cause drops in ruminal pH can lead to inconsistent intake patterns and a rougher transition to dry feeds. Additionally, grains that change from load to load like fluctuations in molasses application, changes in starch or protein sources and so forth can lead to inconsistent intakes and reduced performance.

Water – One of my most frequent suggestions to farms is to also provide calves clean water from day one. Equally as important is to ensure that older calves and weaned calves don’t run out of water as their consumption increases. Research done by the University of Minnesota shows water to have an important influence on the intake level of calf starter because it goes directly into the rumen and creates an aqueous environment needed by rumen bacteria. Additionally, if calves run out of water, they won’t eat grain. Furthermore, calves are likely to slug feed on grain once water is offered again after they go a period of time without it. This leads to swings in ruminal pH and negatively impacts rumen development.

Milk Feeding Program – When deciding on a milk feeding program, there needs to be a balance between milk replacer and calf starter. Pre-weaned calf research shows that if calves are fed more nutrients from their milk replacer, they eat less grain. For example, calves limit-fed milk (2 quarts twice daily) will start consuming between 0.25 to 0.75 pounds of starter grain by the second week of life, compared to accelerated calves consuming only 0 to 0.5 pounds of starter. This early grain intake is driven by the energy demands of the calf. It’s important to meet her energy requirements early in life to support her immune system and growth, but it is equally important to pull back milk as she approaches weaning. A step-down weaning process drives grain consumption to offset the increasing energy demands of the calf and sets the rumen up to support the weaned calf.


Environment and Management – How much a calf needs to eat and desires to eat are dictated by environmental elements like cold stress and heat stress, as well as management practices related to feeding. In colder weather, young calves (3 weeks of age or less) will not yet be consuming sufficient amounts of starter to support their energy demands, leaving milk as the only real source of energy and protein during cold weather. On the opposite side of the thermometer, heat stress might reduce overall starter consumption. Even heat stress in utero reduces starter consumption in calves. The University of Georgia found calves of cows that were cooled during the dry period, compared to those not cooled during summer, ate 0.5 pounds of dry matter intake more at 8 weeks of age, thus resulting in higher weight gain.

Moreover, research found that calves will consume more starter grain if it is fresh, not dusty, and is not moldy. This makes daily cleanliness checks a must to ensure that milk, water and other liquids haven’t contaminated the grain available to the calf. Overall, feeding a high-quality, palatable starter encourages rumen papillae development and thus sets the calf up to ferment and absorb nutrients from the dry feeds she consumes. By maximizing grain intake during the milk feeding period, we develop a rumen that can better support nutrient demands of a post-weaned calf.

Thriving through transition

There are multiple reasons calves may not thrive through the transition period. The most common reasons I see are poor grain intakes prior to weaning and insufficient time after weaning for the calf to adjust before being moved to group housing or larger groups. A weaning strategy to consider is the step-down approach, which breaks the weaning process up into steps to minimize stress and changes for the calf. Step-down weaning is an effective way to give the calf time to increase its grain intake to offset the loss of nutrients provided from milk. A well-designed step-down weaning approach is instrumental in executing a successful transition.

A step-down weaning study published in the Journal of Dairy Science showed that 10 to 14 days prior to weaning is the optimal time to initiate a step-down weaning program. An example of a two-stage, step-down program would be to reduce milk offered by 25% to 50% during the first five to seven days of weaning. Repeat the 25% to 50% reduction the last five to seven days prior to weaning. If a dairy feeds very high levels of milk, offering a multi-stage step-down weaning program is very important. After weaning, calves should remain individually housed for 10-14 days and only be receiving calf starter and fresh water.

Postweaning Tips:

To keep your calves thriving after weaning, think ration, grouping and management.

  1. Offer a consistent presentation of palatable grains or a transition ration in weaned pens. Ensure each calf has ample bunk space to encourage timid calves to come up to eat. It’s equally important to ensure fresh feed is available along the entire bunk line.
  2. Water space is often overlooked in weaned pens but is very important for driving intakes. Additionally, water should be easy for the calf to access and be cleaned regularly.
  3. Group calves post-weaning into smaller pens, if you have the available space. I recommend pen sizes between five and 15 calves. When possible, it is helpful to group calves by size to minimize competition.
  4. Provide post-weaned management that fits your operation’s post-weaned needs. It is not unusual for weight gains to stagnate shortly after weaning or slump if weaning is rushed. The stress of diet and environmental changes can be severe. During this period, it is extremely important that calves remain on an effective vaccination protocol, are handled to reduce stress and are watched daily until they have adjusted.  end mark

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Michelle Sullivan
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