Automatic weaning based on individual solid feed intake: Effects on behavior and performance of dairy calves

J. B. Benetton, H. W. Neave, J. H.C. Costa, M. A.G. von Keyserlingk, D. M. Weary

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Calves are typically weaned from milk to solids once they reach a predetermined age or when they are consuming a predetermined intake of solids. The first aim of this study was to compare feeding behavior and performance of calves weaned based on age versus starter intake. The latter method can result in considerable variation in the age at which calves are weaned, so a secondary aim was to compare calves that weaned early or late when weaned based on starter intake. In experiment 1, dairy calves were randomly assigned to be either (1) weaned by age at d 70 (n = 16), or (2) weaned by intake, where calves were weaned based on starter intake (n = 16). All calves were fed using an automatic milk feeder and offered 12 L/d of milk until 30 d of age. On d 31, all calves had their milk rations reduced. Calves weaned by age were reduced to 6 L/d of milk over 5 d and received 6 L/d milk from d 35 until d 63, when milk was reduced over 7 d until complete weaning at d 70. For calves weaned by intake, the milk ration was reduced on d 31 to 75% of that calf's previous milk intake (3-d average) and further reduced by 25% when the calf met each of 3 targets for starter intake: 225, 675, and 1,300 g/d. Calves that failed to reach the final target by d 63 (failed-intake group; n = 6) were weaned over 7 d to complete weaning at d 70. Ten calves met all 3 starter intake targets (successful-intake group). In experiment 2, all calves were assigned to the weaned-by-intake treatment (n = 48). The weaning strategy was identical to that described for experiment 1, but calves were permitted up to d 84 to reach the final starter intake target. Forty-three calves met all 3 targets and were retrospectively divided into early-weaning (weaned before d 63; n = 31) and late-weaning (weaned on or after d 63; n = 12) categories. In both experiments, the weaning period was considered from the time of initial milk reduction at d 31 until complete weaning at d 70 (weaned by age) or when consuming 1,300 g/d (weaned by intake). Postweaning growth was monitored from weaning until final weight in the calf-rearing period at d 98 (experiment 1) and d 105 (experiment 2). Final weight in the grower period was measured at d 134 (experiment 1) and d 145 (experiment 2). In experiment 1, successful-intake calves (vs. calves weaned by age) consumed 125.3 ± 16.4 L less milk and 41.3 ± 9.3 kg more starter over the experimental period, engaged in more unrewarded visits to the milk feeder during weaning (11.1 ± 1.5 vs. 5.0 ± 1.3 visits/d), and achieved similar weights at the end of the grower period (188.2 ± 6.6 vs. 195.2 ± 5.7 kg). In experiment 2, calves that weaned by intake early (vs. late) consumed 93.3 ± 26.0 L less milk and 57.2 ± 12.2 kg more starter, engaged in a similar number of unrewarded visits during weaning (7.0 ± 0.6 vs. 7.6 ± 1.0 visits/d), had greater average daily gain during weaning (1.08 ± 0.02 vs. 0.94 ± 0.03 kg/d), and achieved greater final weights at the end of the grower period (203.2 ± 2.9 vs. 192.6 ± 4.2 kg). These results indicate that calves weaned based on starter intake can achieve similar weights to those weaned by age, despite consuming less milk. However, some calves will fail to meet starter intake targets unless given sufficient time to do so. Variation in preweaning feed intake provides an opportunity for individualized management of calves.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5475-5491
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Dairy Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the staff and students of the UBC Dairy Education and Research Centre (Agassiz BC, Canada), especially Stephanie Boeve for help with the experiment and data collection. General funding for UBC's Animal Welfare Program comes from an NSERC Industrial Research Chair with industry contributions from the Dairy Farmers of Canada (Ottawa, ON, Canada), British Columbia Dairy Association (Burnaby, BC, Canada), Westgen Endowment Fund (Milner, BC, Canada), Intervet Canada Corporation (Kirkland, QC, Canada), Novus International Inc. (Oakville, ON, Canada), Zoetis (Kirkland, QC, Canada), BC Cattle Industry Development Fund (Kamloops, BC, Canada), Alberta Milk (Edmonton, AB, Canada), Valacta (St. Anne-de-Bellevue, QC, Canada), and CanWest DHI (Guelph, ON, Canada).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 American Dairy Science Association


  • calf growth
  • precision dairy farming
  • robotic milk feeders
  • step-down weaning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Food Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Genetics


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