Transitioning calves from milk to dry feed can be as crucial as the transition from a close-up dry cow to a lactating cow. Emphasis on nutrition and management during weaning can help avoid loss of body condition or increased incidence of disease. Dr. Robert Corbett, DVM, PAS, with Dairy Health Consultation, stresses the importance of proper feeding practices for young calves and recognizes that upfront attention can result in a much healthier calf that has potential to increase a dairy's profitability once in the milking herd.

A top goal of any weaning program should be to raise a healthy calf. Proper nutrition and management practices will allow a calf to reach its own genetic growth potential and enter the milking herd at the proper size and maturity to reach peak lactation performance.

Allowing the rumen to develop to a point where it is capable of efficiently breaking down calf starter is key to successful weaning. Calves weaned before the rumen is efficiently fermenting dry feed can be expected to go through a "post-weaning slump," often recognized by loss of body condition, poor hair coats and increased incidence of respiratory disease. To prevent this from occurring, Dr. Corbett recommends the following practices:

  • Feed milk at 20% of a calf's body weight. This should begin at the first week of life and be maintained throughout the entire time a calf is fed milk. Depending upon the milk fed, a calf should gain 2 to 2.5 pounds per day at this rate. A calf's desire to consume calf starter will increase as the size of the calf increases.
  • Develop a high-protein calf starter. To ensure your heifers receive a high-protein ration, work with your nutritionist and local feed manufacturer to develop a customized calf starter that delivers high-quality protein needed for optimum growth.
  • Calves should be weaned on dry matter intake, not age. When a calf consumes at least 2 pounds of high-quality calf starter (23-25% protein on a dry matter basis) per day for three days in a row, it is ready to be weaned. If high percent protein starter is not available, it is necessary for the calf to consume approximately 4 pounds of an 18% protein calf starter when consuming 20% of its weight in milk before weaning.

Although practices such as these can require an additional upfront investment, avoiding the "post-weaning slump" can pay successful dividends when calves grow faster, can be bred sooner and join the milking herd successfully.

To learn more about proper nutrition in management for young calves, click here to register for the upcoming DCHA Webinar with Dr. Robert Corbett, "Achieving Maximum Growth Potential of Replacement Heifers through Management and Nutrition" on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011, at 1:00 p.m. CDT.

For additional production and performance guidelines for calves from birth to six months of age, refer to DCHA's Gold Standards.

For more information visit the Dairy Calf & Heifer Association web site