What You Need to Know before Weaning Calves?

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Calves require proper rumen development for transitioning from a milk-based diet to a feed consisting of grain and forage. However, rumen development is a gradual process. Irrespective of the age of the calf at weaning time or how much milk is fed to it if the rumen is not prepared, there’re enough chances of the calves struggling after weaning. This can impede the calf growth and also pave the way for detrimental illnesses due to nutritional stress.

The development of rumen in calves begin when they start eating solid food, generally grain, which is composed of starch. The bacteria, sourced from environment and feed, populate in the calf rumen. The bacteria that colonize in the rumen is by and large based on the type of feed the calf eats. There’re several types of bacteria in the rumen where each produces different fatty acids. 

The bacteria that digest fiber produce acetate while the ones that digest starch produce propionate and butyrate. The cell wall of the rumen absorbs butyrate to produce energy and promote calf growth. The fermentation of starch in rumen decreases the rumen pH, leading to colonization of propionate-producing bacteria. Hence, the calves should be fed starter grains to stimulate the growth of rumen papillae that increases the surface area of the rumen cell wall to absorb nutrients produced by digestion of grain feed. It takes around two to three weeks for the bacteria to escalate to a number that can assimilate the grain starch well. It is essential to take care of calves during this critical time to help them endure the stress of weaning.

Calves need to begin feeding the starter grain by the age of two weeks to enable desired rumen development by the time they’re five or six weeks old and ready to be weaned; a process generally followed in the early weaning system. It should be kept in mind that weaning the calves at an older age or heavier body weight does not stamp out the need of rumen being in shape. It is difficult to wean calves who’re on milk more often and feeding less amount of grains. 
Weaning them at such a stage will give them a rough time getting accustomed to grain feed. Calves with high growth rate and consuming more milk are likely to eat large amounts of grain when weaned. This can hinder rumen development and lower the digestion of grain starch, resulting in considerable of starch passing through to the large intestine being undigested and leaving the calves diarrheic.

Try to alleviate weaning stress in calves by putting them on grain diet amounting to at least 250gms per day for four weeks or 500gms for two weeks, until they’re in capacity to consume 1kg grains three days before weaning. Allow the calves to gradually withdraw from milk feeding by increasing grain intake while preserving the time for rumen development (three weeks from the day starter grain is introduced). If the calves are weaned progressively, they’re more likely to adapt to starter grain diet quickly and absorb nutrients, while undergoing a stable transition.

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