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How to wean a calf

Weaning is a demanding time for a calf as their diet undergoes a change from a liquid diet that predominantly comprises of animal protein to a solid diet consisting of vegetable protein sources. The ideal way to reduce stress is the introduction of concentrates (calf starter) at an early age (a few days old). A way to encourage consumption of alternates is to ensure that they are extremely palatable and possess high nutritional content. Fresh water must always be available.

Calves are ready for weaning once they can consume a minimum of 1kg starter concentrates every day for three successive days. This prevents a growth check after being weaned away. An intake of this proportion can usually be attained once the calves are 8 weeks old. The amount of concentrates consumption by a calf is usually dependent on how much concentrate and milk the calf is consuming.

The criteria while weaning calves should be as follows:

  • The calves selected for weaning should be Calves should have been eating at least 1kg calf starter/day for three successive days.
  • Only healthy calves must be selected for weaning.
  • The calves that are selected for weaning must not be undergoing any other stressful activities such as disbudding or castration.

Post-weaning period can have a growth check in calves and there are a few factors that are responsible for this. These are enumerated below:

  • A limited consumption of dry feed leading up to weaning. This results in a restricted development of the rumen. This results in a growth check for about two weeks while the rumen becomes habituated to assimilating a large amount of dry feed.
  • Large consumption of fiber such as grass and hay. Calves cannot consume sufficient quantities of fiber required to sustain fast growth in weight while their small rumen is still developing.
  • A change in feed usually results in calf stress. Consuming concentrates prior to or, during, as well as post-weaning helps in limiting growth check in calves.

Growth check in calves causes a loss in growing time that is never made up and calves then take longer to reach their target weights.

There are two types of weaning usually practised: ‘abrupt’ and ‘step’ weaning.

Step weaning is that method of weaning when the volume of milk being consumed by the calf is slowly reduced over weeks. For instance, If the calves are consuming milk twice a day, weaning reduces the milk consumption to once a day and substitutes constitute the second feeding. Stepped or gradual weaning can be attained by reducing the volume of milk consumed for 7 to 10 days. This is also known as gradual weaning.

However, weaning can only be successful once the calf has developed its rumen and is fit to consume a minimum of 1kg of calf starter every day. The method of stepped weaning is known to decrease the stress at weaning and mitigates growth setback.

On the other hand, abrupt weaning is done as a compulsion (on the death of the mother at calving or stoppage of milk due to other physiological reasons) These can have serious consequence on the health of the calf as well as its growth and health trajectory over its life-cycle.

Consumption of calf starter should be increased just before weaning. This is achieved by limiting the availability of milk/ milk replacer for 7 to 14 days prior to weaning. This ensures that the calf cannot sate its appetite on milk alone and urges it to consume solid food.

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