A guide to healthy weaning

Weaning time in the cattle business is ultimately the most stressful time in the calf’s life.

6 Min Read

Weaning time in the cattle business is ultimately the most stressful time in the calf’s life. However, with proper preparation and a good management plan, you can decrease the stress incurred on your calves, their mamas and yourself at weaning time, all while keeping both the cows and their offspring in peak performance.

When preparing for weaning and developing a management plan, there are several conditions to contemplate. You’ll need to plan for the best time to wean, the best method to follow, and a health management protocol to keep both the cows and calves their healthiest. In addition, you’ll want to consider the environmental factors that you’ve faced during the year, such as precipitation and temperatures, which impact feed availability, calf age and size, cow condition and the market to know if there will be strong demand for your calves when you are ready to sell them.

Timing is everything

The industry average for weaning calves is 6-to 8-months-old, with most weaned between 7-and 8-months-old. The age you decide to wean will likely be dependent on feed resources available and the condition of the cows. Remember, by the time you are weaning that cow should be already bred and into her next gestation, trying to grow and develop her next progeny, not just continue to grow the current calf at side.

In addition to cow condition and feed availability, keep a close watch on calf supply and demand in the marketplace. If you think there might be an upcycle in the market and demand is going to increase when your calves are closer to the 6-month mark than 8, then it might be wise to wean and sell them when you can get the most profit.  

Early weaning is an option that does have its advantages. Typically, early weaning occurs when the calves are 3-to 5-months-old. Weaning early is the easiest way to help manage a cow’s condition, and you won’t have to put as much feed or hay back into her to get her condition back if you pull a big calf from her early-on.

Weaning methods impact stress

It is impossible to wean without causing some stress to both the calf and the cow; however, particular strategies will cause less stress on both parties and are more calf friendly.

Fence line weaning is the least stressful weaning method. With fence line weaning, you separate the calves from their mothers and then pen them across the fence from one another where they can still see and hear one another. Research has proven that calves will eat more and put on pounds faster when using the fence line method.

Another commonly used approach is abrupt weaning, where the cows and calves are separated but remain on the same land. The cattle might be able to hear each other, but they can’t see each other, so the calves become accustomed to being alone, while still hearing the sound of their mothers, and vice versa.

Two other less common practices, but that are still engaged on cattle operations are day weaning and slat or nose weaning. Day weaning is a gradual weaning where the cow and calf are separated during the day and reunited in the evening for a window of time so the calf can nurse in the morning and evening. This method is most common with livestock exhibitors who are getting calves broke and ready to show. Another strategy is nose or slat weaning, where a plastic slat or guard is inserted into the calf’s nose to prevent it from nursing. The pairs are still run together, and the calf can still drink water and eat grass; however, it can’t nurse and after a week to two weeks will not have the desire to suck.

Perhaps the most stressful weaning method is one that is still used quite regularly. Many producers will wean calves, load them in the trailer and take them directly to the sale barn. This method is usually used when space and labor is in short supply.

Be proactive with health, nutrition

Keep young calves as healthy as possible prior to weaning. It is best to give calves their proper vaccinations or vaccine boosters about a month prior to weaning. Because each geographic location and situation is slightly different, consult with your veterinarian on what exactly you need. Most pharmaceuticals offer a 7-way or 5-way vaccine to treat multiple bugs. You will also want to worm calves when you vaccinate them.

Nutrition is crucial to eliminating your calves’ stress and continuing their post-weaning performance. It is vital to keep their diets somewhat consistent to what they have been accustomed to. If the calves have been on a total-grass diet, you don’t want to feed them much grain; however, you do want to offer them a high-quality hay or forage, to continue them on a consistent diet. And if you’ve had them on creep feed while they were still with the cow, continue the same creep feed for a two to three-week period post-weaning while transitioning them to a grower ration.

Not only is the calf stressed and in need of a high plane of nutrition, the maternal instinct of the cow kicks in, and she too is stressed by the removal of the calf she has been caring for. Although she is also in the early stages of gestation, the initial period post-weaning is considered her maintenance period, but it is still vital to provide her with a balanced vitamin and mineral package.

You can help eliminate some of the calves’ weaning-time stress with the Vita Charge® line of products, specifically designed to support digestive health and promote feed and water intake during times of stress and recovery. With Amaferm®, a precision prebiotic research-proven to combat stress by supporting the animal's own immune system, significantly increasing intake and nutrient utilization, and MOS to trap and expel pathogens, limiting their ability to do harm, the Vita Charge products offer a winning combination to promote health to those fresh-weaned calves.

Vita Charge comes in a Cattle Drench, designed to be administered the first day of weaning, and a Stress Tub, a convenient way for the calves to get their daily dose of Vita Charge for 14 to 21 days post-weaning. It is not a complete mineral supplement but does work in concert with your mineral. New this year, is the Vita Charge Stress Tub with HEAT® for those times when you are weaning in temperatures of 70 degrees and above. The Stress Tub with HEAT also contains plant extracts, research-proven to help maintain the animal’s normal body temperature and garlic, a natural insect repellant.

Weaning. Don’t make it stressful on you, your calves or their mamas. Keep your calves healthy and happy, be prepared, create a plan and be sure to have your Vita Charge on hand prior to the separation day. To learn more about Vita Charge, visit www.vitaferm.com.

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