As my grandfather always said when I was growing up, “Another year, another weaning program.” For most spring-calving producers, it likely seems that there is no shortage of options or opinions when it comes to weaning calves in the fall. Not only can this period be stressful on both the cow and the calf, the length of time that the newly-weaned calf spends bawling can be stressful for the producer as well.

Minimizing this stress is key to enhancing productivity, welfare, and profitability. While the weaning process may seem like a one-time event that is short in duration, it is comprised of multiple components, all with their own potential stressors. How a calf responds to the weaning process very well may dictate the long-term productivity of that animal.

A successful weaning program that minimizes calf set-backs begins well in advance of the physical separation between the dam and the offspring. Given the added stress associated with production practices such as castration, dehorning and branding, these procedures should be carried out well in advance of, or 30 days after, weaning. In addition, because immunity is impaired during times of stress, administration of vaccines should be conducted 3-4 weeks in advance of weaning if possible.

The late drought that has crept back into many parts of the Midwest may be leaving producers with far fewer pasture resources than anticipated back when rain and cool temperatures were plentiful in most areas this spring. Producers who have been forced to start supplementing cows to extend the grazing season should consider weaning as soon as possible. Weaning the calf can reduce nutrient requirements of the cow by as much as 50%. Plus, the most efficient period for weight gain occurs as a calf; so feeding the calf directly when grazing resources are limited is usually more economically advantageous than feeding the cow to support lactation.

While it is important to meet the nutritional requirements of the calf as soon as possible, it is also important that feedstuffs and feed amounts are changed on a gradual basis to allow the rumen to adapt and prevent acidosis. In a fact sheet developed by Dan Loy, postweaning nutrition is discussed in more depth.

Regardless of whether producers adopt an early weaning or traditional weaning program in any given year, one often-overlooked aspect is the surrounding environment. The ability to keep calves in a familiar paddock or pasture where they are acquainted with water and feed bunk location can mitigate stress significantly. Thus, removing the cows from the calves is often less stressful than removing the calves from the cows.

One particular weaning strategy that has gained notoriety over the last few years for being lower stress is fence-line weaning. In this system, cows are placed on the opposite side of the fence from the weaned calves so that visual and even some physical contact is possible. Over a period of time ranging from a few days to a week, the number of fenceline visits between cow and calf gradually decline. Researchers have reported increased weight gains and reduced vocalization during the weaning period in calves weaned in the fenceline system when compared with traditional separation methods.

Producers should utilize a system that works best for their individual operation. If you have questions on tailoring a weaning program to your individual operations, contact one of the state or field beef specialists from the Iowa Beef Center for assistance.

Source: Patrick Gunn, ISU Extension cow-calf specialist