Reducing stress at weaning can help protect calves against bovine respiratory disease (BRD) and set them up for success in the feedlot. Calves are especially vulnerable and immune compromised when weaning-related stressors – namely separation from the cow, vaccination, shipping, commingling and nutritional changes – all happen within a short timeframe. Here are five weaning management suggestions to prepare calves nutritionally and immunologically to face these challenges.
#1 Spread out the stressors
The goal on weaning day should be to separate the calf from the cow. Period. It is the most stressful day of the calf’s life, so ideally, other stressors should not be added to it. All the other necessities – vaccination, nutrition and shipping – should each have a different designated day for completion to minimize stress on the calf’s immune system. Calves that are shipped off the ranch 45-60 days after weaning are able to adjust to maternal deprivation and new nutrition before adding the stress of acclimating to a new grow-yard environment. However, if it’s not possible to keep them that long, consider using a proven backgrounder who is close by and experienced in preparing calves for success in the feedlot.
#2 Examine your vaccination strategy
Vaccine choices present another stress management option, as some products can themselves be a significant source of stress. For example, because intranasal vaccines are applied within the calf’s nasal passages, their contents do not enter the bloodstream where most adverse reactions are initiated. Timing also is important. Instead of waiting to vaccinate calves following arrival at the feedyard (where they may encounter disease well before the vaccine has a chance to take effect), the ideal time to vaccinate calves is two to three weeks prior to weaning, providing early protection against respiratory and clostridial diseases. Booster doses can be given once the calves have settled down and are eating well, typically about two to three weeks post-weaning.
#3 Consider creep feeding
Nutrition plays a big role in transitioning a calf from nursing and grazing grass to weaning. One low-stress nutrition program is creep feeding, which is a great way to teach calves to eat from a feed bunk. Start offering calves a grain supplement that helps them keep gaining weight. When the cows are removed, calves will be adapted to the grass and supplemental bunk feed, and they will continue to gain weight efficiently. Introduce creep feed two to six weeks prior to weaning. Access to water troughs before weaning also will help calves learn that not all water is in a pond or stream.
#4 Don’t forget mineral supplementation
There are important minerals and vitamins that every calf needs for strong immunity, and ideally, they should be consuming mineral well before weaning. Mineral deficiencies will contribute directly to immune function deficiencies. Because mineral needs vary widely by geography, it’s best to consult with your veterinarian or nutritionist on how to best meet your specific needs.
#5 Evaluate economic impact of implants
Implants can have a significant impact on economic outcome. If an owner is going to be weaning and keeping calves for six weeks or longer, he or she should be looking at the value of using implants. The investment is low, and the return can be as much as $30-$40 per head in added value. Implanting can be conveniently added to the pre-conditioning program – optimally about three weeks prior to weaning.
The bottom line is that we’re in a new, economically rewarding age in terms of calf value. The new economics of today make the old evaluations of nutrition, pre-conditioning and implanting irrelevant. High returns on investment from all these suggested practices present a strong argument that these management strategies need to be seriously evaluated on every ranch. And fortunately, what’s best for the calf and what’s best for the rancher go hand in hand.