Our customers often approach us to help plan their feed ration for weaning calves in particular. This blog is a selection of top tips and insights we have gathered from many years in the feed industry.

Kathryn Thompson :: Tuesday 8th August 2023 :: Latest Blog Posts

Planning your calf feed ration for weaning calves

Planning what to feed your livestock during weaning can be a tricky decision, but it is vitally important, as getting it right at that early stage sets the animals up for the rest of their productive life. Our customers often approach us to help plan their feed ration for weaning calves in particular. This blog is a selection of top tips and insights we have gathered from many years in the feed industry. 

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When to wean your calves?

Calves should be 6 weeks old and a minimum of 80 kg for weaning. At this stage of development, calves have had sufficient support from the cow to have good health and immunity. But it is early enough for them to start developing their healthy rumen, which is so essential to long-term health and success. Some of the drivers of healthy rumen development include: 

  • Clean, fresh water supply
  • Good-quality creep feed
  • Clean, fresh straw

Before weaning, it is important to limit the intake of forages such as straw, as overeating of forages can cause calves to eat less creep feed. Eating a larger percentage of forage before the calves are weaned can lead to them becoming pot-bellied due to the extra gas production in their rumen. This can cause health issues if not closely monitored and addressed. 

Why use a creep feed for weaning calves? 

Creep feeds are designed to promote rumen development, transitioning the calf from a diet based on milk to one based solely on forages and concentrates. As soon as possible, encourage your calves to eat a grain-based feed. Digestion of feeds rich in starch plays an important role in rumen development.

There are many different creep feeds on the market; we make our own standard blend that you can read about here. We also have customers who use our mill and mix service to make their own creep feed on their farm, and we are able to adapt our standard feed to the specific needs of a farm, for example, changing the balance of vitamins and minerals. 

Our calf creep includes barley (46.5%), soya (22.5%), sugar beet pellets (25%), molasses, rape oil and vitamins/minerals. 

Overall, a good calf creep feed should contain a minimum of 12 MJ of metabolic energy per kilogram in dry matter and should be made up of around 18% crude protein fresh weight. To maximise feed intake and reduce the risk of health issues, it is important to ensure that the feed is dust-free, doesn't show any signs of mould and is offered in troughs that are regularly cleaned. 

What to feed your calves post-weaning

Post-weaning, provide straw for the calves as the forage component in the ration. Straw is an ideal transition forage for calves as they move from milk to creep and onwards. Once the calves are well established on creep and straw, you can slowly start to move them on to silage at around 5–6 months of age. 

The transition period between straw and silage should be gradual, with the silage being increased and the straw decreased incrementally to start with. This allows the calves' rumen time to adapt to the silage without becoming stressed or risking bloat issues. 

When you want to move your calves to finishing rations, remember that finishing rations generally contain less forage and more supplementary feeds. This will often cause an increase in rumen acidity, which can cause health problems. To reduce the risk of acidity-related health issues, remember to transition the calves to the finishing ration slowly and monitor them for any signs of ill-health. 

As with weaning, fresh, clean straw should be provided in racks during the transition to ad-lib cereal feeding when you reduce other forages. This will help stimulate the development of the rumen and reduce the risk of health issues. A healthy rumen ensures that calves grow and thrive as they should. 

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Managing the feed transition period 

We normally recommend a minimum of 2 weeks changeover period between different feed rations, although this will vary. The length of the changeover period really depends on the extent of the difference between the rations. If you are introducing large amounts of concentrates, extend the time period to make the change slower.

If the calves are feeding from a trough, increase the amount fed and frequency of meals. For example, move from one meal per day to two and then three if feasible. Continue to do this until the cattle do not clear up all the feed. This indicates they are ready to move on to ad-lib.

As well as thinking about the transition to a different ration, it is important to minimise the stress associated with transport to a new farm, mixing with new cattle and being in different housing. Even if you are not bringing in new calves to the farm, you are likely to be moving one group of calves into a larger herd when moving from weaning to finishing and as such need to consider how the calves will handle this change in environment.