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Proactive calf weaning programs save money

calf with a plastic nose flap device

Many calves are “truck weaned” as a low-cost and low-management weaning option, but it is a wasteful practice. It often costs the seller and/or the buyer a lot of money. Fortunately, better weaning alternatives are available compared to such abrupt removal of calves from their mothers, and transporting them bawling to another yard. These better weaning methods are proactive and thus effective in reducing weaning stress in sold calves as well as in everybody’s pocketbook.

From the start, it’s no secret the immunity/health status of truck-weaned calves’ is likely to be compromised as contrasted to calves put through programs weeks ahead of weaning. Research has proven many calves never fully recover from truck weaning and tend to suffer from future poor performance, higher incidence of chronic and long-term health problems and higher rates of feedlot death loss.

Observed from a straightforward economic standpoint, truck-weaned cattle also have higher shrinkage by the time they get to their new feedlot home. This simple fact makes them worth significantly less compared to calves that are completely weaned before being trucked.

For example, about six to seven per cent shrink is natural in transporting cattle, but when calves experience a great degree of stress such as during truck weaning, tissue shrink is often pushed to 12 to 15 per cent total body weight loss. As a result, in today’s market, a 600-lb. truck-weaned calf which loses an extra six per cent of its body weight or 36 lbs. at $2.65 (subject to change) is worth about $96 less than a more relaxed pen mate.

Much of this stress from truck weaning in young calves is due to the unnatural breaking of the instinctive maternal bond between mother and calf. Field trials such as one performed at the University of Saskatchewan demonstrated when each cow-calf pairs of a herd were split in half and each group of cows were given the other group’s calves following weaning; both cows and calves kept searching for their own partner.

This trial also reported in particular, that lonely calves become quickly despondent and find little comfort with other familiar segregate cows of the same group. Before separation, many of these calves were spending little or no time actually nursing on their dams (re: at six months of age, calves receive from zero to 15 per cent of their nutrient requirements from mother’s milk), but after separation, it seemed to prove that the dam still provides comfort to her calf.

Weaning options

Consequently, slowly breaking this maternal bond between mother and calf during weaning is employed in the following and practical ways of weaning calves that not only reduces stress, but get calves familiar to a new environment and new diets. Examples are highlighted:

  • Complete separation — Put cow-calf pairs in the same pen for a few days to a week. Once the calves get used to the feed bunks and waterers, move the cows out. The advantage of this method is that the calves are no longer in a strange place and even without their mothers present are starting to nibble at their new grower diets.
  • Fenceline weaning — Separate cows and calves by a fence, which prevents them from touching one another, but allows visual contact to reduce stress on both sides of the fence. Calves can remain on familiar ground or pasture, while cows are the ones being moved out. The University of California showed fenceline calves gained as much as 30 per cent more weight compared to traditionally weaned calves.
  • Two-step weaning — A method developed by the University of Saskatchewan that outfits each nursing calf with a nose “anti-nursing” device about seven to 10 days, before these calves are separated from their cows. Field trials showed that two-step calves vocalized 85 per cent less, walked 80 per cent less and spent 25 per cent more time eating compared to traditionally weaned calves.
  • Early weaning — This is a method that can employ each one of the above methods in one fashion or another, where calves are weaned at four to five months of age (and as early as six weeks of age). Its biggest advantage allows a cattle operation to save on limited feed resources or to improve body condition of thin productive cows.

Post-weaning diet

After one of these weaning options are chosen, it’s just as important to formulate a well-balanced and palatable diet that will be fed for the next few weeks to post-weaned calves. Their good nutrition can come in the form of good-quality grass hay, fed free choice and often complemented with a hand-fed 14 per cent beef cube or pellet made from medium energy/low-starch ingredients. Ensiled feeds such as corn or barley silage should be avoided due to their intake-compromising water as well as rich energy content. Some producers have successfully foregone all dry lot feeding until later in the season, and utilized cereal stubble fields supplemented with pasture molasses or corn distiller grains beef blocks to help feed weaned calves in the short term.

In addition to a good weaning and feeding plan, it’s a good idea to set up a short pre-weaning program as well. It should start with a veterinarian-sponsored vaccination program about three weeks before the calves are actually weaned. At about the same time, soon-to-be weaned calves are also dewormed, dehorned and male calves are castrated. They might even be exposed to a creep ration to help them get used to eating out of a bunk or self-feeder.

Good post-weaning management also includes cleaning and then bedding with straw pens that will house newly weaned calves. Waterers should also be checked frequently, and repairs made, if necessary.

Attending to these details when weaning calves helps, but the overall success of fall weaning beef calves will depend upon how successful producers are in reducing stress that occurs when a calf is taken away from its mother. It may never be completely eliminated, but using the above proactive weaning programs that encompass; sound weaning methods, health protocols as well as pre- and post-weaning calf nutrition goes a long way in minimizing it in order to sell healthy, good growing and profitable calves.

About the author


Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]



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