Calf weaning is always a topic of much discussion and debate; it is difficult to filter through advice and figure out what is best for your farm. I have sat around many farm kitchen tables and had the same discussion. As a calf specialist, I would always recommend weaning later, and using a step down weaning method but don’t just take my word for it, let’s have a look at some of the research.
During the weaning period, calves are susceptible to a number of health-threatening complications. Diarrhoea and other illnesses can be exacerbated dependant on how and when weaning occurs. Also, the quality and quantity of feed introduced during this critical period can also impact calf health and overall well-being.
Higher growth rates prior to weaning can set the stage for continued growth post weaning and a lifetime of enhanced productivity. With more farms striving for higher performances from calves pre-weaning; it makes sense to find the best possible method of weaning which will continue these growth rates.
No matter how you go about it, the weaning process creates stress in calves as one digestive system replaces another. Yet, several recently published studies show that the choice to wean later, rather than earlier, can have significant health and performance benefits.
In a 2015 study conducted by the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Alberta, and Trouw Nutrition R&D, Wood et al. found that, as calves age, the permeability of the GIT decreases, enabling calves to better fight off diseases including diarrhoea, the leading cause of calf death. Their data suggests that by weaning later, calves benefit from a fortified (less permeable) GIT, thereby reducing one important factor of vulnerability.
(Meale et al., 2015) suggests that later weaning also holds performance benefits. While some reduction of average daily gain (ADG) is inevitable during weaning, the study found that later weaning mitigates these losses. Indeed, in their comparison of calves weaned at 12 and 8 weeks, when weighed at the same time post weaning, the 12 week weaned (WW) calves had an average body weight that was 4.2% higher than that of the 8 WW calves.
While there are many factors and variables to consider when weaning a calf, the recent research discussed suggests that an elevated plane of nutrition pre-weaning, combined with a step-down process at weaning and a later age at weaning, point towards optimal calf health and lifetime performance benefits.
Wynnstay Calf Specialist – South of England