Calf care checklist: These calf behaviors can say a lot about the weaning program

Posted on July 28, 2022 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Noah Litherland, Vita Plus dairy technical specialist
Observing the behavior of recently weaned calves can help you judge whether your weaning program is on point or if a few adjustments will reduce stress (and maintain performance) in these young animals.

Indicators of successful weaning

  • Calves are eating enough starter grain to maintain rate of growth.
  • Calves are drinking adequate amounts of water and maintaining hydration status.
  • Calves are quiet and calm and not exhibiting stress behaviors (vocalization).
  • Calves are ruminating. Time spent ruminating should steadily increase with greater starter grain intake. Rumination is important for starter digestion, rumen buffering from saliva and nitrogen recycling (nitrogen absorbed through the rumen wall is recycled through salvia back into the rumen to stimulate rumen bacteria growth).
  • Manure is consistent, firm and dark.
  • Calves are spending adequate time resting. Stressors such as overcrowding and nuisance flies decrease resting time.

Indicators of opportunity for improvement

  • Calf growth rate stalls or calves lose weight.
  • Starter intake increases rapidly, but an imbalance of starch and fiber in the calf starter or inadequate rumen development leads to ruminal or hind-gut acidosis due to excessive starch fermentation. Loose manure suggests irritation in lower gastrointestinal tract, resulting in decreased nutrient absorption, intestinal flushing or both.
  • Grain feeding does not keep pace with intake, resulting in empty bunks and potential for slug feeding.
  • Calves break with respiratory disease, suggesting calves are carrying a pathogen and the stress of weaning allowed the pathogen to become virulent.
  • Calves break with coccidiosis, suggesting coccidiostat intake is inadequate to suppress coccidia growth or environmental coccidia pressure has overwhelmed the animal.
  • Vocalization is an indicator of stress often caused by abrupt feeding changes. Gradual weaning from milk over a period of seven to 14 days is helpful to stimulate starter grain intake.

Category: Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care