(Previously published online with Ontario Goat: 2020)
Weaning, or transitioning from a milk-based to solid diet, is one of the most stressful events in a kid’s life. It is not uncommon for kids to grow more slowly, stop growing, or even lose weight at weaning. This is referred to as “weaning shock”. Strategies should be implemented to reduce any negative effects that may arise as a result of weaning to protect health and welfare while maintaining growth. In meat goats, weaning may occur at the same time the kid is separated from the doe, causing additional stress. In dairy goats, maternal separation and weaning are usually separate events. This article covers strategies for weaning kids from milk who are already separated from their dam.
There is some evidence that dairy kids grow very well if provided with milk until 84-112 days (12-16 weeks) of age. The increase in growth at a younger age may allow replacement doelings to reach breeding weight at a younger age, reducing the cost of raising them. Producers must decide if the potential increase in growth and future milk production outweighs the cost of additional milk or milk replacer.
Preparing for weaning
Preparing kids for weaning should start early. Kids must be exposed to hay and concentrates early in life to promote proper rumen development. At a young age, kids will not absorb many nutrients from solid feeds, but consuming small amounts of these feeds will help stimulate rumen development. A developed rumen is essential to digesting nutrients from solid feed later in life. Sudden removal of milk without rumen adaption to solid feeds and adequate solid feed intake can lead to a slump in growth as well as a variety of serious health complications.
Allow kids to have free choice access to solid feed soon after birth, at about 7-14 days of age. They will likely not eat very much, but it is important to continue to offer them fresh solid feed. Put a small amount out for them daily and remove any leftover feed before offering fresh feed. Offering kids free access to fresh, clean water from birth will also encourage them to consume more solid feed.
The right time to wean
Since kids cannot switch from milk to solid feed suddenly, it is best to wean kids based on their weight and amount of concentrate they are eating, not their age. Kids should be about two and a half to three times their birth weight before they are weaned. For a Saanen born weighing approximately 7 lbs., weaning can start when they reach 20 lbs.
Weaning kids based on the amount of solid feed they consume ensures that individual differences in development are considered and kids are able to absorb nutrients from solid feed before milk is taken away. This helps prevent weaning shock. Kids should be eating about 1% of their body weight in solid feed before weaning. For a 33 lb. kid, this is about 0.33 lbs. of feed per day. However, it can be a challenge to determine if all kids in a pen are eating enough solid feed.
An average kid will be eating 1% of their body weight in solid feed and weigh two and a half to three times their birth weight at around 60 days of age (8.5 weeks). Despite this, if economically feasible, weaning one month later than this may reduce stress, improve growth, breeding success, and production in the first lactation.
Gradual weaning has been found to be the least stressful weaning method for kids. In a gradual weaning program, milk allowance is slowly reduced over a period of several days. A review in 1988 by Lu and Potchoiba found that gradual weaning is especially important if weaning kids earlier than 70 days (10 weeks) of age. Kids weaned before 70 days of age are much more likely to experience weaning shock (reduced growth) than those weaned after.
Stress at weaning
Stress can lead to reduced feed conversion, greater production of manure, decreased immunity, increased excretion of pathogenic bacteria in manure, and poor meat quality. As such, stress decreases productivity, health, and welfare. Being free from fear and distress is an important aspect of good animal welfare.
Avoid “stacking stressors” for kids. Do not perform other stressful procedures such as disbudding, routine health care, mixing of groups, transporting, or changing housing at the same time as weaning. Spread these stressful experiences out by a week or two, allowing kids time to adjust to each change.
Additionally, avoid weaning kids who are sick. Sick or compromised kids may experience greater weaning shock, further reducing their growth and setting back their recovery. Kids that were sick between birth and weaning may appear healthy now, but need a few more days on milk before they are ready to be weaned, due to the lost growth and development while they were ill.
Throughout the entire weaning period, continue to closely monitor kids for signs of stress or symptoms of disease. Early intervention can help you identify and treat weaning shock before it becomes a serious problem. If many of your kids are experiencing weaning shock, reduced growth, stress, or illness at weaning, you may need to tweak your weaning protocol. Working with your herd veterinarian and nutritionist can help you identify problems and take steps to avoid them in the future.
Weaning is a significant event in the life of your kids. By monitoring growth, body weight and feed consumption, and using this information to make weaning decisions as well as reducing stressful experiences close to weaning and gradually reducing the amount of milk offered, producers can ensure that kids continue to grow and thrive throughout the weaning process. With some careful consideration and preparation, you can help kids avoid weaning shock and transition to a new diet smoothly. This will safeguard the welfare and profitability of your kids.