As summer begins to fade, the grass begins to cure, and the grazing season draws to a close, our thoughts begin to shift towards the fall. Weaning spring-born calves is likely one of the most significant events on the fall calendar of most cattle operations. Weaning, without doubt, is one of the most stressful events in the life of a calf. It’s generally accepted that we can’t completely remove the stress associated with an event, so it is often approached with a “let’s get it over with” attitude and weaning typically goes well (or at least we hope it does).
However, we often overlook that weaning is also our opportunity as cattle producers to prepare calves for the next phase of the beef production cycle. Weaning represents a transition and how well we prepare calves for the transition is essential to the outcome. The goal of weaning is to produce a healthy calf that is comfortable without its dam, readily consumes feed and has successfully acclimated to a new environment. The primary barriers to this goal are the stressors experienced by calves during weaning which are: 1) maternal separation 2) moving to a new environment 3) becoming accustomed to unfamiliar feedstuffs and 4) reduced immune function resulting from the aforementioned stressors. There are a number of different management practices that may be implemented on an operation, depending on the resources available to more effectively prepare calves for weaning. A few of these practices are listed below.
Establish a herd health program. Producers should consult their veterinarian and develop a herd health program that includes a vaccination program and a treatment plan for calves that become sick. A sound vaccination program prepares calves for disease exposure. While a treatment plan allows producers to have the supplies and pharmaceuticals on hand to treat illness in newly-weaned calves immediately.
Don’t add additional stressors. It is well established that stress significantly impacts cattle health and well-being, reduces animal performance and increases disease susceptibility. Castration, dehorning, and branding are all stressors that can add to the stress of weaning. These tasks should be completed well in advanced of weaning (a minimum of 3 weeks is typically recommended).
Clean the pen. If calves are going to be weaned in a drylot, remove the previous year’s manure and start with a clean pen. Simply put; dust equals increased respiratory pulls. Cleaning the pen prior to weaning minimizes dust and allows pens to drain better should conditions become wet.
Place feed bunks and water tanks along and perpendicular to fences. One of the typical behaviors associated with newly weaned calves is fence walking. Fence-walking can be made more productive by placing feed bunks or water tanks along the perimeter of the weaning area. This allows calves to come in contact with feedstuffs and water sources. Provide access to the weaning pen or pasture. When possible, providing cows and calves access to the weaning area for a few days/ weeks prior to weaning allows calves to become accustomed to the weaning area with the dam. This reduces the additional stress of an environment change on calves following weaning.
If possible, move the cows not the calves. Once both cows and calves have become accustomed to the weaning pen or pasture, remove the cows from the area, leaving the calves in an area they are familiar with.
Provide fenceline contact if practical. Research indicates that allowing fenceline contact between cows and calves for 7 days after separation reduces behavioral stress and minimizes post-weaning weight loss (Price et al., 2003). Fences should be sturdy and tight enough that calves cannot nurse. If fenceline contact is not practical, then cows should be moved to a location where they cannot hear calves.
Don’t become a source of stress. Sorting cows and calves on weaning day can be difficult especially when facilities are limited or poorly designed. However, sorting cows and calves doesn’t have to be difficult. Dr. Joe Stookey, University of Saskatchewan, has an excellent video that demonstrates how easy this process can be. The video may be viewed online.
Help calves adjust to new feedstuffs. One of the essential transitions a calf has to make during weaning is the transition from mother’s milk and grazed forage to grazed forage and supplement, hay and supplement, or a ration containing novel feeds delivered in a bunk. Feeding both cows and calves a small amount of the supplement or weaning ration prior to weaning, in the weaning pen or pasture can be used help acclimate calves to both the feeds and the environment. Additionally, feed intake ofweaned calves is often low (1.0 to 1.5 % of bodyweight, dry basis) immediately following weaning. Calves also have relatively high nutrient requirements. Thus, the weaning diet must be nutrient dense to meet the nutrient requirements of the calves at the expected intakes previously mentioned. Unfortunately, the dry feeds calves are often most familiar with (typically grass hays) are not necessarily nutrient dense.
At the K-State Agriculture Research Center, Hays, KS, a feeding management protocol for weaning calves has been developed that works well for transitioning weaned calves to a total mixed ration. The protocol is summarized in the table below. Essentially, high-quality grass hay and the weaning ration are offered each at 0.5% of the calves’ current bodyweight, dry basis, on the day of weaning. The weaning ration is placed in the bottom of the bunk and the hay is placed on top. The amount the weaning ration is steadily increased, while the amount of hay offered remains constant. In addition, on day 4 the hay is placed on the bottom of the bunk. Over a period of 7-10 days the dry intake of the calves is steadily increased and should reach approximately 2.2-2.5% of the calve