“There’s nothing stronger than a mother’s love.” While this age-old adage references the love between a mother and her children, cow-calf producers will find truth to it when it comes time for weaning calves. Expert after expert agree that weaning is one of the most stressful periods during a calf’s life and, depending on management practices, can have a huge impact on a producer’s bottom line.

It starts with health

First things first — a successful weaning program is going to start way in advance of when cow-calf producers begin implementing weaning strategies, says Merial veterinary services manager Tom Van Dyke and University of Tennessee beef specialist professor emeritus Clyde Lane. The two cattle experts have decades of experience under their belts and have spent more than a day or two in the cow pen during weaning periods.

According to Lane, “Weaning is the most stressful time a calf will ever experience in its life.” Because of this, it is crucial cow-calf producers develop a health program to back calves with a strong immune system when it’s time to say goodbye to mom.

Threats can range from respiratory diseases such as bovine respiratory disease, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis and bovine viral diarrhea, or clostridial diseases like blackleg, says Van Dyke.

“Ideally, producers will have the vaccination program in full motion, with boosters administered two weeks before weaning to hit that high immunity point,” Van Dyke says.

And it’s not just building a vaccination program that needs to be on the agenda prior to weaning. Dehorning and castration need to be taken care of — best done at 2 months of age or less.

According to Van Dyke, scheduling vaccination programs along with routine processing such as branding and castration is a good way to lower multiple high-intensity days in the calves’ lives.

Optimize your vaccination program

One thing Lane stresses when implementing a vaccination program is to be sure to read the product label directions and to follow Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) guidelines during the process. In 2014, Lane was named BQA Educator of the Year, for outreach he did while serving as the Tennessee BQA Coordinator. Through his 16-plus years of work with the BQA program, he’s seen mishaps that could have been avoided because of a simple mistake.

“Follow label directions. Most of the products, not all, but most will require two shots. Be sure to read directions so the booster shot is given at the appropriate time,” he says. “Even if a producer has been using the same vaccine manufactured by the same company for years, always read the label because sometimes there are some minor changes.”

Another way to optimize the vaccination program and herd health is to implement a deworming program, Van Dyke notes.

“Infection with internal parasites can interfere with the ability of calves’ immune systems to respond to vaccines and to fight off infection by respiratory pathogens,” he says. “Worm infection represents another stressor that can be minimized. Calves on pasture are especially at risk for the damage to health and productivity caused by worms.  Therefore, it is important to include deworming in the preweaning protocols.”

Last but not least, a pro tip from Lane: Practice low-stress handling practices when processing calves.

“The less excited calves are, the better the vaccine will work,” he says.

Health = solid investment

Aside from the responsibilities cattle producers have in giving their cattle the best possible care, there is a financial incentive for having healthy calves.  

“With the value of cattle now, we cannot afford to let health slip by. For one, if we lose the calf, we’ve lost quite a few dollars,” Lane says. “Two, research has shown that if a calf gets sick, it will never perform at the level it would have had it not been sick during its lifetime.”

Because of this, there has been a push from feeders for healthier calves from the ground up — something they are willing to pay for.

“To get the full and final benefits of a vaccination program, producers need to keep good records and work with a marketer,” Lane says. “They will be able to verify your program, along with finding premium market opportunities.”

Van Dyke agrees, adding that many feedyards are looking for calves that won’t be at high risk of getting sick and that there is merit in building a good reputation when it comes time to sell. 

Low-stress strategy

When it comes to low-stress weaning practices, there are two common types: fenceline and two-stage.

The most widely practiced of these two methods is fenceline, which is described exactly in its terminology. Cows and calves are sorted off each other and penned alongside. This allows calves to go through the weaning process with access to companionship with their dams across the fence.

“Fenceline weaning reduces the movement of the cows and calves,” Lane explains. “Calves won’t bawl as much and start eating faster, allowing them to make a quicker recovery.”

Then there is the two-stage system, where producers place plastic flaps on calves at cow side, prohibiting their ability to nurse. Calves can still graze, eat grain and drink water while receiving normal companionship from their dams. After about two weeks, the pairs are separated. Taking calves off their dams and weaning them at a location away from the cows is the most stressful farm-weaning program, Lane says.

According to him, the type of weaning practice should be determined by what kind of facilities and labor force a producer has. On one hand, fenceline requires adequate pasture or pen space for separation, and on the other, two-stage requires more handling.

“One thing to keep in mind is that some noseclips may fall off calves,” Lane says, “meaning that the calves that don’t lose their noseclips will be weaned in a low-stress manner, and the remainder will suffer from higher stress levels that come with being weaned abruptly.”

Above all, he warns producers against what he calls the “Peterbilt method” of weaning, which he describes as, “Yanking calves off mom and trucking them off West on a semi-trailer pulled by a Peterbilt. Those calves are going to have compromised immune systems while being exposed to a whole pool of diseases at market. There is a good chance they’ll get sick.”

But regardless of the method chosen, success can be found in prepping calves prior to weaning, Van Dyke and Lane say. According to them, starting calves on creep feed or feeding out of bunks at least two to three weeks in advance of weaning day is strongly recommended. It is also suggested feed and water resources are placed perpendicular against the fenceline and calves remain in their original pen or pasture for weaning, if possible. This makes it easier for calves to find the feed and water while walking the fence.

Lane also advises producers walk through calves at least twice a day to keep a close eye on their health and that calves remain on the home ranch for a few days after weaning before being taken to market.

Responsible beef

Properly executed low-stress weaning practices pay back in many ways. But at the end of the day, management practices are more than economic benefits and convenience; they directly result in an edible product that will end up on the plates of consumers throughout the world.

“Every producer needs to realize he is producing a commodity that will be purchased down the supply chain,” Lane reminds.

Van Dyke agrees, saying, “There is a certain pride factor associated with setting a priority on calf health. It’s a producer’s reputation, it’s his personal satisfaction and it is also his responsibility.

“We’re producing a food product for consumers, and we want them to know that the animals were treated humanely, that they were healthy, and kept healthy primarily by responsible management practices, instead of relying on extra antibiotics.”