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5 things to remember for cattle weaning success

Candice Estep/Getty images Closeup of calf
LOW-STRESS WEANING: Weaning time can be very difficult on a calf’s system. Do what you can to reduce that stress, and you’ll wind up with a healthier calf that’s ready to grow.
Reducing a calf’s stress at weaning can ensure it is healthy and productive the rest of its life.

Weaning time is a high-stress situation for calves. But there are five ways cattle producers can help ease the transition and set those calves up for success.

Experts from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the Beef Cattle Institute at Kansas State University generally agree that low-stress weaning can contribute greatly to the future success of that calf as it grows.

1. Labor and equipment. The K-State Beef Cattle Institute’s experts, Bob Weaber, department head of the K-State Eastern Kansas Research and Extension Center; as well as Brad White, director of BCI; Bob Larson, professor of clinical sciences; and Dustin Pendell, associate professor, weighed in on low-stress weaning on a Sept. 11, 2020, episode of “Cattle Chat.”

The first step any cattle producer should take, they agreed, is to consider the labor and equipment they have available to them. If there’s a family member or friend who’s more hindrance than help, maybe give them a different job, they said. Fix gates and equipment before calves ever get to the pen for safety and security. Do a walk-through of your facilities — even get out the mower and mow down tall weeds that can provide eye irritants to young calves, Weaber said.

2. Water access. This also means making sure that you have plenty of available water that calves can physically get to in the pen, they added. These calves may be coming from a pasture setting, where they learned to drink out of a pond or creek. So, your goal is to make sure that they can adjust to any water setup you have in the pen, they advised. That means taking off waterer covers, or making sure they’re in the open position so they can see and smell the water, and see other animals drinking from the faucets.

Remember, also, they said, that calves at 200 days aren’t as tall as a grown cow or steer, and some water sources in pens can be too tall for them to reach. It can be as simple as making sure that there’s enough fill dirt around the water tank to provide access to shorter calves.

“Water is the most important nutrient,” Weaber said. So you may need to bring another water tank into the pen to be sure they have access as they’re switching from mother’s milk to a feed ration.

3. Health protocols. Preconditioning calves with a 45-day postweaning period has been an industry practice for some time, according to the Beef Quality Assurance program. Preconditioning can improve animal health, their performance in the feedlot — and ultimately, their carcass quality on the rail.

“Calves with fewer health problems after leaving the ranch will require less medication, suffer less death loss, perform more efficiently and potentially have higher-valued carcasses,” according to the BQA materials.

Karla Jenkins, Nebraska Extension beef specialist, reminds cattle producers that low-stress weaning can actually boost the effectiveness of the vaccinations and health products those calves are given. A preconditioning protocol should include vaccines against bovine respiratory disease viruses; a clostridial vaccine such as 7-way blackleg; and a dewormer to protect against parasites. This is also the time to apply growth implants for terminal calves.

4. Physical separation. There are three basic ways to separate the cow from the calf, and you need to choose what’s right for your operation. Weaber says he prefers the fence-line weaning method over the traditional method of abruptly loading up calves off of the pasture and taking them to a physical dry lot or small pasture far away from the cows. The calves are separated from their dams by a fence, but they can still see them. It gently breaks the maternal bond in about a week, and then the calf can be set up to change its diet.

Other experts swear by the two-step weaning process, where a plastic nose piece is placed in the calf’s nose. The device lets the calf graze and drink water, but it has points on the end that will poke the cow if the calf tries to nurse. After about two weeks of the cow discouraging the calf from suckling, the pairs can be separated more easily.

“Match what you can do with your resources, your time and what works best for your operation,” Weaber said.

5. Nutrition. Jenkins and Dee Griffin, Nebraska Extension feedlot veterinarian, emphasize that nutrition is a key part of weight gain and immune response in weaned calves. You’re switching them from milk, which is rich in energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals. It needs to be replaced with high-quality forage and possibly a supplement as well to maintain that preweaning intake, they advised.

If you’re weaning calves on native range in the fall, remember that grass is in a state of declining nutrient content and may need supplemental feed.

If you’re weaning in a drylot, these calves must first learn how to eat from a bunk space, so provide about 2 feet per head for the number of calves being weaned. And, as with your water source, you may need to add fill dirt around bunks to allow those smaller calves to reach the bunk.

Kansas State University Beef Cattle Institute, Kansas Beef Council, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources contributed to this article.

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