Effect of weaning age on growth, mammary gland development, and immune function in Holstein Friesian calves fed conserved alfalfa (FiberStart).


AgResearch Ltd., Grasslands Research Centre, Private Bag 11008, Palmerston North 4474, New Zealand. Electronic address: [Email]


This study aimed to evaluate intake, body growth, and the development of the rumen, mammary gland, and immune system in Holstein Friesian calves reared for 100 d on the commercially available feed FiberStart (conserved alfalfa, Medicago sativa; Fiber Fresh Feeds Ltd., Reporoa, New Zealand) and fed calf milk replacer (CMR) for either 56 or 91 d. Eighty calves (40 bulls and 40 heifer calves) were reared indoors in groups (n = 5 of the same sex/pen). All calves were fed 4 L of CMR/d (175 g/L of CMR) in 2 feeds/d for the first 10 d and then 1 feed/d until d 49 or 84. The calves were gradually weaned by d 56 (earlier weaned; n = 8 pens) and d 91 (later weaned; n = 8 pens). All calves were fed FiberStart ad libitum as the only solid feed source from d 1 to 100 of the study. Irrespective of treatment, all calves had similar body weights at d 0 (40.9 ± 3.0 kg) and d 49 (74.2 ± 5.1 kg) of the study. Calf sex had no effect on intake, growth, blood, and immune system parameters. Earlier-weaned calves consumed 18% more solid feed dry matter but had 16% lower body weight gain (28.9 vs. 38.5 kg, respectively) from d 56 to 100 relative to later-weaned calves, resulting in different body weight at 100 d (104 vs. 121 ± 1.3 kg). Although earlier-weaned calves could compensate for the loss of CMR dry matter and crude protein intake from d 56 to 100 by increasing forage intake, they were unable to compensate for the loss of energy from the CMR by increasing solid feed consumption. Plasma β-hydroxybutyrate concentrations were 52% greater in earlier-weaned calves than in later-weaned calves at d 84, indicating greater metabolic activity of the rumen wall. The duration of CMR feeding had no influence on humoral or cell-mediated immune functions of the calves, as evidenced by a lack of effect on antivaccine antibody responses as well as on immune gene expression. Earlier- versus later-weaned heifer calves had 5% lower mammary gland mass, indicating that greater energy supply increased mammary mass. The results of this experiment demonstrate the ability to artificially rear dairy calves on a conserved alfalfa as the only solid feed. Furthermore, earlier weaning off CMR promotes solid feed intake and an associated increase in blood β-hydroxybutyrate, an indicator of rumen development, but increasing the duration of CMR feeding improves growth and mammary gland mass by d 100. The implications of these findings on lifetime growth, health, and milk production in dairy heifers warrant further investigation.


forage,heifer calf,rumen development,solid feed,weaning,