No one knows your calves better than you. They get your full attention in those early weeks of the pre-weaning period. Every cough or scours event gets noticed and handled appropriately. But when it comes time to move a weaned calf into a group pen, efforts are not always made to “precondition” her before the move takes place. The end result is that too many stressors bombard the calf and she breaks with pneumonia or coccidiosis several days after the move. Maybe you’ve even come to accept this post-weaning “slump” as normal.

All of that can change. Learn how to help weaned calves make a smooth transition to a group pen before they even set foot out of individual pens. Here are some strategies to try.

Spread out stress

The process of moving and handling animals creates stress no matter how gentle you are. They encounter new housing and a new social structure. Then, you expect them to compete for feed and figure out how to use a new watering system.

You can help calves prepare for the move by spreading out stressful management activities, like dehorning and vaccination, prior to moving day.

“We spread out these stressors as much as we can,” says Hugh Chester-Jones, animal scientist at the University of Minnesota Southern Research and OutreachCenter in Waseca. Calves are now dehorned at 30 days of age instead of one week after weaning. “I think it was too stressful for the calves,” he says. Likewise, vaccines are strategically spread out so calves receive them in advance of the move to group pens. The only vaccination given just prior to moving the calves at eight weeks of age is an intra-nasal respiratory vaccine.

Wait a week… or more

After weaning at six weeks of age, calves at the Southern Research and OutreachCenter stay in individual pens for an additional two weeks. They receive the same calf starter, but no milk. Calves then move into groups of six calves per pen in the grower barns. They continue to stay on the same starter diet for an additional seven to 14 days.

The IowaStateUniversity dairy facility also gives calves a waiting period before they move to group pens. Calves go off milk completely at six weeks of age. During the following week, they adjust to a milk-free diet while still in the comfort of their individual pens. When that week is up, calves then move into small groups, says Amy Bill, an employee at the dairy, which relocated last fall from Ankeny, Iowa, to a new facility just south of campus in Ames, Iowa.

Minimize size variation

Not all calves are ready to wean at the same time. Likewise, not all calves are ready to move at the same time.

Before moving day, assess the body size of the calves scheduled for moving. Aim for as little variation in body size as possible.

At the Southern Research and OutreachCenter, they try to keep the weight range of the calves in a pen as close together as possible because of the research trials conducted at the facility.

Generally, calves weigh an average of 175 pounds at eight weeks of age (two weeks after weaning). “It is possible to have a 50- to 75-pound difference in some calves coming out of the nursery,” says Dave Ziegler, operations manager at the calf and heifer facilities. Watch the really small calves that did not do well during the nursery phase, he adds. And, make sure the calves receive adequate bunk space when they arrive at their new accommodations.

Try a buddy system

Most calves spend their pre-weaned life without any calf-to-calf contact. If your calf accommodations allow, you may want to try some socialization in the early post-weaning period.

This is an option in the nursery barns at the Southern Research and OutreachCenter.

The individual calf pens in the barns feature removable panels. To convert the individual pens into group pens, all someone needs to do is remove the panel that separates one pen from another. This expands the pen size and allows two or more newly weaned calves to socialize before they move into larger group pens in the grower barns.

Another advantage of doing this is that the calves move easier out of the pens and onto the trailer that takes them to the grower barns, Ziegler says. “This would reduce some stress as well.”

All of these strategies can work together to reduce the threat of post-weaning slump in calves ready to transition to group pens. Give some thought as to how you can use them to minimize the stress of moving to group housing.