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Tips for a successful calf weaning strategy

Autumn is a time of year when many spr ing calves are brought home from pasture, where they’ve spent the last six months or so, and then put into drylot with feed bunks and waterers. Many calves are not ready for this move and because they miss their mums, could be hungry or simply miss lying in the grass, they are quickly stressed. No wonder, bawling calves are seen walking the fenceline, may lose weight and become victims to disease. A successful weaning program simply means getting them over the weaning hump, keeping them healthy and getting them onto well-balanced diets, so they will grow and contribute to the income of the operation.

On the farm, the main stressor of weaning in young calves is breaking the instinctive maternal bond between mother and calf. Many of us have seen over the years that when green calves are put into drylot pens; they spend the much of their first week of separation looking very despondent because they cannot find their mothers that nursed and protected them for most of their short lives.

There are many practical suggestions available that reduces this weaning stress when the alves are removed from their mothers.

One recommendation suggest that rather than separate the calves right off the cows, and move them alone into strange pens, move the cow-calf pairs together into a new feeding area that will be used only for the calves after weaning. Once the calves get used to the feedbunks and waterers, move the cows, out. The idea being that the calves are no longer in a strange place and even without their mothers, will quickly get accustomed as to where their new dinner will be.

Likewise, advocates of “fenceline” weaning propose that calves can be effectively weaned with a strong fence separating them from their dams. The concept is that cows and calves are prevented from touching one another, but have visual contact to reduce stress on both sides of the fence. Furthermore, calves can even remain on familiar pasture while cows are moved to another quarter, just as long as the cow-calf pairs can see one another. This idea seems to work; the University of Davis in California demonstrated that fence-lined weaned calves gained as much as 30 per cent more weight compared to traditionally weaned calves in later growth stages.

In contrast, a more novel weaning approach to separation techniques was tested by the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. They fitted nursing calves to be weaned with a nasal anti-nursing device. The idea was to wean the calf, right under the cow’s nose.

Early tests show these weaned calves adjusted to life without many problems once they were separated from their mothers. Common signs of weaning stress such as calves calling and looking for their mothers were reduced by about 80 per cent. It was speculated that since these test calves were less stressed than more traditional forms of weaning, calves could be easily shipped out to another operation for further feeding.

Regardless of weaning strategy, once calves are separated from the cows, they should be placed in a pen with plenty of palatable, modest quality and nutritious feed. From an economic standpoint, it may be desirable to continue one’s impressive gains seen on summer pastures (i. e.: creep feeding), but the initial goal to feed new calf arrivals remains: to reduce weaning stress, to maintain adequate health, and to get them eating well and consistently. Spring calves weaned at 175 to 225 kg (400 to 500 lbs) in the autumn need about a 63 to 66 per cent TDN and 14 to 15 per cent protein diet as well as a good source of mineral and vitamin pack to maintain a current growth of 1.5 to 1.8 lb per head, daily.

Weaned calf nutrition can come in the form of grass hay fed free-choice and often complimented with a hand-fed 14 per cent beef cube or pellet made from high energy-low starch ingredients. Stressed out, sick or those calves struggling to maintain a good level of feed intake should not be fed ensiled feeds such as barley silage because of its high water content, during this flexible holding period. Some producers have successfully foregone all drylot 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.

One should keep in mind that most feeding methods for weaning calves are usually not stand-alone programs. With the advent of animal traceability for consumers and the feedlot buyer’s desire for higher quality and healthier calves before they enter a feedyard dictates that present fall calves might be put through a pre-conditioning feed and management program which encompasses the whole weaning period. It’s not so much of a matter that producers will be guaranteed premiums for these calves, but they could be building a good reputation for producing higher quality calves, or on-the-other hand, not be discounted in the market because calves were not properly weaned and thus unprepared for feedlot life.

Although definitions and timelines vary, many pre-conditioning programs start with a veterinarian-backed vaccination program about three weeks before the calves are weaned. About this time, calves are also dewormed, dehorned and male calves are castrated. Ideally, these animals have had some exposure to creep feeding to help them develop their immature rumens, and also to give them a chance of eating out of a bunk or self-feeder. Implementing the above methods of weaning spring calves just seems to nicely cap off most pre-conditioning programs.

Successful weaning of spring beef calves in the autumn will not depend on whether they are raised on a pre-conditioning program (although it helps!). Rather, how successful, producers are in reducing the amount of the stress that calves incur after they are taken away from the cows. Weaning stress is naturally occurring phenomena and therefore may never be completely eliminated. Minimizing it and its side effects with good management and good calf nutrition goes a long way in making financial returns grow as much as the calves do.

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

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