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Less Calf Stress, More Profit

Weeks leading up to weaning the first calf on most operations is a time of major decision-making. What should I do with my calves? Should I sell them now or background them throughout the winter? What are my best options when feed supplies are tight and markets are challenging? How can I add value to my calves? Is it really worth spending more time and money on my calves?

A sharp pencil, a calculator and your feed inventory over the next few months is going to justify whether, your spring calves are sold after weaning them from the cows or retained on your operation. In either case, adding value to every weaned calf starts with on how well they do in the days after separation from the main cowherd. It’s a good investment because every minute and penny spent on producing stress-free weaned calves tend to be good growing cattle that feedlot buyers do and you should envision as the most profitable cattle from your operation.

Minimizing stress levels in calves caused by their removal from their mothers will underlie all profitable feeding and marketing plans to produce high quality calves. Field trials performed at the University of Saskatchewan proved that when each cow-calf pairs of an experimental herd was split in half and each group of cows was given each other group’s calves following weaning that both cow and calf immediately looked for their own partner. It was noted that these newly weaned calves become quickly despondent and found little comfort without their mothers, even in the presence of other adult cows.

It’s easy to corroborate such information with our experience of “truck weaning;” where calves are abruptly removed from their mothers, loaded upon a cattle trailer and transported to another yard. Because it places newly “weaned” calves in one of the most immediate stressful weaning situations of their short lives, it is understandable why so many truck-weaned calves suffer from a high rate of sickness and death loss.

Fortunately, with the advent of the Canadian age verification program, independent cattle owner traceability, retained ownership on other cattle yards, promotion of on-line cattle marketing and the encouragement of other various certification programs throughout Canada and the United States; “truck-weaning” is largely being replaced by more well-defined mainstream calf weaning programs.

These relatively new weaning programs can be roughly broken-down into three stages: (i) a preparation phase, (ii) an actual weaning period and (iii) a post-weaning phase. The primary goals of each of phases is to reduce the amount of weaning stress in order to keep calves healthy, and to get calves after weaning onto entire dry-feed diets as soon as possible that should easily dovetail into future growing and finishing feeding programs.

All such encompassing weaning programs are frequently called “preconditioning programs.” They often start with a veterinarian-backed vaccination schedule about three weeks before calves are weaned (aka preparation phase). At the same time, calves that were not castrated or dehorned in the spring are processed as well as put through de-worming and external parasite (lice and mange) treatments. Also at this time, it is a good management strategy to assure that all pre-weaned calves are given some exposure to a nutritious creep feed, particularly targeting those calves that were not summer crept-fed.

Pre-weaned creep feeding helps nursing calves further develops their immature rumens and gives all calves some experience of eating out of a bunk or self feeder, if they haven’t done so. Research has consistently proven that preconditioned calves benefit from lower death losses, lower medication treatments (and costs), and improved weight gains after they enter the feedlot as growing or finishing cattle.

Despite some past biases that discounted preconditioning calves as a one-way benefit for cattle buyers, today’s cow-calf operators can make more money on pre-conditioned weaned calves in both Canadian and cross-border markets.

A 2009 review from Colorado State University concluded from 10 years of sales data collected from a local auction market that incoming vaccinated and 45-day weaned calves returned to their cow-calf owners about a $5 per hundredweight or $25 per animal at-face-value premium, which essentially covers associated pre-conditioning feed costs. Upon deeper examination, the realized profits for people selling weaned calves comes from the unaccounted revenue generated from extra post-weaning weight gains (re: if a weaned calf gains two pounds (lbs.) per day for 45-day post-weaning period = 90 lbs. more of marketable weight).

Most action taken in order to prepare calves for weaning is advantageous, but the time does eventually come, when all calves on the farm must be actually weaned!

With a main goal of minimizing stress during weaning, producers can employ different effective methods of weaning calves:

Complete separation — Put cow-calf pairs in the same pen for a few days to a week. Once the calves get used to the feedbunks 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, many of them will nibble at their new diets.

Fence-line 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 that fence-line 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 ten 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.

In the week or so following weaning, the importance of good nutrition is probably not the first thing on most calves’ minds. However, their first meals after the cows are gone should be quite simple. Interim diets could be the same pasture grasses that they consumed for the last few months or maybe some recently introduced medium-quality grass hay. In contrast, producers should avoid drastic feed changes or any forage or feedstuffs that may cause digestive upsets such as fermented silages or substantial amounts of grain. Producers should also avoid providing any feeds that would challenge newly weaned calves’ dry matter intakes.

When calves are becoming more comfortable, these forages should be complimented with a palatable beef cube or pellet made from high energy-low starch ingredients that support good post-weaning weight gains for the next 30-45 days; spring calves weaned at 175-225 kg (400-500 lbs.) gaining 1.8-2.0 lb. per day require a 65-68 per cent TDN and 14-15 per cent protein diet as well as a good mineral and vitamin pack. Some producers have even introduced small amounts of silage into their feeding programs or even successfully utilized cereal stubble fields supplemented with molasses-or corn distillers-containing beef blocks to raise post-weaned calves.

While post-weaning nutrition is important on its own merits, it’s part of a overall weaning program that reduces stress, maintains good healthy and promotes early post-weaning gains; all facets that should add solid value to your calves. Whether you sell them in the fall or keep them for months and sell them afterwards, starting off with successfully weaned calves will ultimately generate the best profit.

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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