It’s moving day. heifer number 1492 sniffs along the floor, picks her head up, perks her ears and trots to the back of her new home, her curiosity fully piqued. Then she bucks, snorts and runs to the front of the pen. Her pen-mates react similarly.

Typically, this behavior lasts for a day or less. But it’s easy to see why grain intake drops nearly in half for the first day or two after calves transition from individual housing to group pens. There are too many new things to see, smell and experience.

Intake usually goes right back up, says Sam Leadley, calf-care specialist with Attica Veterinary Associates in Attica, N.Y. But some calves, sometimes as high as 20 percent, flat-line in terms of growth because their intake does not immediately return to desired levels.

That doesn’t have to be the case on your operation. Use the following pointers to make sure your transition-heifer-nutrition program caters to the needs of your animals.

1. Transition ration changes slowly

You can do this a couple of ways.

For example, calves at Ron and Marianne Scherbring’s Scherbring Heifer Hotel in Minnesota City, Minn., are weaned at six weeks of age, but don’t enter group housing for another two weeks. They are introduced to the transition ration with plenty of time to adjust before having to adapt to new housing, too.

Or, you can move the starter ration with the calves. “I work with several farms that prefer to continue to feed the starter ration free-choice for a week or so following the move to group pens before switching to a transition ration,” says Leadley.

Either strategy works as long as calves have the opportunity to adjust to one change at a time.

During this same time, be sure to limit-feed forages so heifers get used to them before offering forages free-choice. “You want heifers to eat their grain, not load up on hay,” says Leadley.

2. Increase feed access

Calves in individual pens know that water and feed buckets are in immediate proximity. But that changes when they move to group housing with community feed bunks and waterers.

“I’ve found that if you split a barrel in two (lengthwise), place it in the group pen, and fill it with feed, calves will eat more after they move from hutches,” says Leadley. The feed bunk should have feed, too. But this gives them time to find it without significantly decreasing intake. Only use the in-pen feeder for a day or two, or until the initial feeding is gone.

Likewise, a tub of water in the pen for a few days can help ease the transition to the new water supply.

Also, remove barriers to feed and water supplies to encourage intake. “We removed the headlocks from the pens of the youngest calves because the noise was intimidating, especially for timid calves,” says Marianne Scherbring.

3. Provide enough protein and energy

By the time calves reach 56 days, they should gain about 1.8 pounds per day. Your goal should be to keep the ball rolling in the next phase, says Neil Broadwater, regional dairy-extension educator at the University of Minnesota.

To do that, your transition ration needs to contain adequate protein and energy. Most rations contain about 18 percent crude protein and feature an energy density of at least 1.3 Mcal of metabolizable energy per pound of diet dry matter until calves are four months old, says Leadley.

Recent research at the University of Minnesota Southern Research and OutreachCenter shows that you can use several feeding strategies to successfully meet these goals. Work with your nutrition adviser to develop the ration that is ideal for your situation.

The key is to set performance goals and spend the time to measure heifer heights and weights to be sure you meet your goals, suggests Broadwater. “Keep in mind that you’ll need to make adjustments to your strategy during weather extremeness — cold and hot.”

4. Manage bunks

Finally, pay attention to feed bunk management, says Broadwater.

  • Allow plenty of bunk space. There should be room for all animals to be able to eat at the same time.
  • Make sure the feed is uniform from one end of the bunk to the other.
  • Establish standard operating procedures for mixing and delivering feed.
  • Observe eating behaviors.
  • Check bunks daily to evaluate intake. If the bunk is consistently empty, and you are not shooting for a slick bunk, you’ll need to increase feed delivery levels. If too much remains between feedings, you’ll need to cut back delivery to reduce waste and spoilage.
  • Remove old feed once a day .

Remove stress

The key to a successful transition is to remove as many stresses as possible, says Sam Leadley, calf care specialist with Attica Veterinary Associates in Attica, N.Y.

“We dehorn our calves very young, follow a vaccination protocol prescribed by our veterinarian that does not involve injections around the time of transition, and do everything we can to make the process as easy as possible for our heifers,” agrees Marianne Scherbring of Scherbring Heifer Hotel, Minnesota City, Minn. “We watch closely to make sure they come up to eat and are doing well. We also make sure that anyone working with the calves also knows that this can be a stressful time for the animals so they watch out for these heifers, too. Otherwise, we leave them alone so all they have to do is eat and grow.”