Transition Pens … Time For a Change?

Posted on November 2, 2012 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
What’s the weakest part of your calf program? Chances are it’s the transition pen, where calves usually first experience group housing.

After weaning, calves are usually housed individually for another few days or weeks. Then a calf goes to the transition pen when it is 8- to 12-weeks-old. Sometimes, calf raisers feel the initial phase of the job is now complete and it’s time to get back to feeding calves. But for calves, life in the transition pen is not always as smooth as it could be.

Let’s examine what calves encounter as they move to the group transition pen.

This is a major stress. Calves must now compete with other animals (sometimes too many) for a place to lie down, drink and eat.

Behavior changes
Calves will typically walk the fence line for a couple of days. They are no longer in a “comfort zone” and must get used to their new surroundings.

Nutrition programs
Several things can occur here:

  • Grain Mix
    • The grain mix will usually be limit-fed starting on day 1. This is often 5 to 6 pounds of grain per head per day.
    • The starter grain mix can be changed to grower mix on day 1 of grouping, which can lead to reduced intakes.
    • Medications can be changed at the time of grouping. But a possibility of reduced grain intake can lead to calves becoming more susceptible to diseases such as coccidiosis.
  • Hay
    • It can take up to three weeks for the rumen bacteria to fully adjust to a different type of feedstuff. By offering hay free-choice and limiting grain on day 1 of grouping, we substantially reduce calves’ nutrient intake since it will take a few weeks for hay to be fully used.
  • Water
    • While in hutches, calves were accustomed to open water containers near their feed area. A change in location may equal a reduced water intake.

Pen Design
Important considerations include:

  • An oversized pen makes it harder for calves to find their feed. Many calves may walk the perimeter of the pen for hours or days leading to stress and loss of calories to exertion.
  • Calves need a properly sized, readily accessible bunk. Don’t use headlocks or narrow slants to guard the feed. It is important that calves have uninhibited access to feed the first week after grouping.
  • Bunks may be placed in the middle of the pen to increase feeding space. Unfortunately, fence line feeders are preferred since calves spend their first couple of days walking the perimeter of the pen.

Raisers commonly expect weight loss during the first week in the transition pen. The second week is supposed to bring calves back to the same weight where they started. But that’s two weeks of lost growth opportunity. In addition, calves often develop respiratory problems anywhere from five to 20 days after being moved to group housing.

The stresses noted above can lead to a reduced immune response, sick calves and poor growth performance in the transition pen. How can we do better? Here are a few ideas to help calves do better when they enter the transition pen:

  • Keep the grain mix type and amount the same as the day before the calf was moved. During the first week in the transition pen, calves should get the mix at the same level as in the week before they moved. This is typically at a free-choice level. Do not reduce nutrition during this stressful time.
  • Gradually introduce hay starting the second week. Hay initially provides few nutrients and can reduce starter intake.
  • Place open water containers and feed bunks so calves will have easy access as they walk the perimeter of the pen.
  • Do not subject calves to any unnecessary stresses for the week before or after moving. That includes vaccinations and dehorning.
  • Have the pen properly bedded. Minimize any drafts or environmental extremes. Calves are not used to it and need time to acclimate.
  • Watch your calves. Is each one eating? Where are they located in the pen? Are they getting wet and dirty when lying down? Are they coming to the feed bunk like they are hungry? If they look confused, they probably are.

These measures can minimize stress associated with the transition pen. Often, it’s the little things that make a big difference. Proper transition pen management can help keep things moving along in the 24-month race to get a quality replacement heifer into your milking herd.

This article was originally printed in FrontLine by Milk Products, LLC.

Category: Calf and heifer nutrition
Facility design
Starting Strong - Calf Care