Raising Calf-Fed Holsteins: Achieving a Smooth Weaning Transition

Calf-fed Holsteins should be introduced to grain early in life to start developing their rumens; this video outlines the timeline for this process.
Raising Calf-Fed Holsteins: Achieving a Smooth Weaning Transition - Videos


If producers are interested in raising Holstein calves to produce beef, they need to develop the rumens of those calves to optimize their growth performance later in life. This video will outline the factors involved in transitioning calf-fed Holsteins from colostrum to grain, and beyond. It stresses the importance of proper feeding during the weaning period and how different factors influence rumen development.

Who is this for?

Farmers (primarily dairy farmers) who wish to raise their Holstein calves for beef production as an alternative source of revenue.


Beef cattle nutrition Beef cattle metabolism Beef cattle management Feedlot nutrition and management

More by Tara L. Felix 

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- At birth, all calves are essentially nonruminant or simple-stomached animals.

Although the rumen is present, milk bypasses the rumen, and digestion of milk occurs in the abomasum, the chamber of the stomach that is most like human stomachs.

After weaning, the calf will rely on approximately 80% of its daily energy needs coming from the substrates produced by rumen microorganisms that are breaking down incoming feed.

Thus, it is crucial to develop that rumen, because the animal will depend on it for the rest of its life after weaning.

I'm Dr. Tara Felix, the Penn State Extension Beef Specialist, and I would like to talk about how to transition calves from milk to grain in order to promote the growth of a healthy and functional rumen.

Now, there are four feeding stages of the calf.

Colostrum is the first milk, provided within the first few hours of the calf's life.

Cattle are mammals, meaning that they feed their young milk.

Thus, milk dominates the early calf's life.

However, grain feeding should be introduced early, generally around three days of age for the calf.

Calves are then fed both milk or milk replacer and grain for four to seven weeks.

Finally, weaning occurs, after which time the calf will consume grain and forages but no milk.

Ultimately, the goal is to make weaning as stress-free as possible for the calf and to progressively reduce the amount of milk fed.

The weaning transition period is that period of two weeks before and two weeks after weaning.

The weaning transition period is an important time for your calves.

One of the reasons this four-week period is so crucial has to do with the rumen development.

Here you can see the difference between the rumen of a calf that has been fed only milk and one that has been allowed to consume grain.

While liquid-only diets can provide good average daily weight gains and skeletal growth, they're too expensive to feed long-term.

In addition, offering too much liquid will decrease the calves' intake of grain during this early period, resulting in improper rumen development and more stressful weaning for the calf.

Thus, the amount of liquid fed to calves early on is just as important as introducing grain to ensure proper development of their digestive system.

Calves should be offered liquid feed two to three times per day at 12% of their birth weight.

Calves may be fed whole milk, waste milk, or milk replacers.

But generally whole milk from the bulk tank is too valuable of a commodity to be used if you're raising many calves.

Waste milk can be used, and that's milk from cows that for whatever reason is not going into the bulk tank.

But use caution when feeding waste milk to calves and considering pasteurizing it to eliminate harmful organisms.

You can also feed calves a milk replacer, but be sure to follow the mixing instructions to ensure adequate and consistent delivery of nutrients.

Conventional milk replacers generally consist of 20% protein and 20% fat.

Other milk replacers are available with different levels of fat and protein, but there's a lack of information about the efficacy of these alternative milk replacers for calves to be raised for beef.

At day three, calves should gradually be introduced to coarse grain, which is often referred to as calf starter or starter grain.

Grain feeding should be started by offering small amounts of fresh, clean grain each day and gradually increasing the amount that's offered daily.

This grain should be palatable and textured.

Grain should be coarsely processed, and molasses may be added in order to improve the palatability.

Make sure that a calf starter is not dry, dusty, or moldy.

And avoid finely-ground grain which tends to cake together when wet, resulting in low grain intake.

Research has shown that once approximately 1/4 to 1/2 pound of starter grain is consumed by the calf each day, it'll take about three weeks then to develop a fully functional rumen.

Recall the emphasis placed on the quantity of liquid fed.

Well, one reason for that is that there's an inverse relationship between calf liquid intake and starter intake, as the graph illustrates.

This relationship means that if calves are given the option to consume more liquid, they will, at the expense of consuming grain.

Therefore, in order to ensure that calves consume adequate grain, liquid feeding should be gradually cut back from two or three times a day to once a day.

Liquid feed should continue to be offered for at least a week as grain consumption begins to increase.

This gradual transition is important so that we don't starve calves that are not consuming enough grain.

Not consuming enough grain can affect the functionality of the rumen.

The rumen is considered functional when there is enough absorptive capacity to allow the calf to continue normal growth once liquid feeding is stopped.

This functionality is a result of rumen development in both size and thickness as the rumen papillae elongate.

The papillae are finger-like projections that increase the surface area of the rumen, which enables nutrient absorption.

The growth of rumen papillae is stimulated due to the production of volatile fatty acids or VFAs by rumen fermentation.

When papillae are sufficiently developed, the calf can be transitioned onto grain only.

A good rule of thumb is that calves should be eating between 1 1/2 to two pounds of starter grain for three consecutive days before weaning or completely removing the milk.

If you experience growth slumps following weaning, it might be because calves have not had sufficient rumen development and you may need to reevaluate your weaning protocols.

Insufficient development is one of the reasons we're so focused on grain feeding when more mature cattle consume mostly forages like hay.

In a young calf, because the rumen is not fully developed, feeding hay only stretches the rumen but does not really help it develop.

Equally important to the grain in the development of a healthy rumen is water intake.

Water provides a medium for ruminal bacteria to live in.

Bacteria ferment grains to produce those volatile fatty acids that are so critical for rumen development.

Without water, not just the water in milk and milk replacers, but fresh, clean, ad libitum water, ruminal development is slowed.

This fresh, clean water must be available to calves at all times.

Separating the grain and water, ideally within a divider to a avoid mixing is critical.

Remember the four feeding stages of the calf.

The first, colostrum at birth, followed by milk or milk replacer, then a slow introduction of grain at day three.

Then the calf will continue to consume milk or milk replacer for four to seven weeks while at the same time gradually increasing grain intake.

Finally, we wean the calf after it is consuming 1 1/2 to two pounds of grain each day.

The most important thing to remember is that feeding grain early in life encourages rumen development of the calf and ensures that your calf-fed Holsteins will adequate ruminal fermentation capacity to grow well in the feed lot after weaning.


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