Tips for efficient weaning of fall-born calves

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Cattle producers weaning fall-born calves in mid to late June may want to employ fence-line weaning as a strategy to help reduce stress on the young animals.

“Solid data exists courtesy of California researchers who weaned calves with only a fence separating them for their dams, and compared them to calves that were weaned totally separate from their mothers,” said Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension emeritus animal scientist.

Calf behaviors were monitored for five days following weaning. Fence-line calves and cows spent approximately 60 percent and 40 percent of their time, respectively, within 10 feet of the fence during the first two days.

“During the first three days, fence-line calves bawled and walked less, and ate and rested more than those calves kept total separate from their dams, but these differences disappeared by the fourth day,” Selk said.

All calves were managed together starting seven days after weaning. After two weeks, the fence-line calves had gained 23 pounds more than the calves that had been totally separated from their dams. This difference persisted: After 10 weeks, the fence-line calves had gained 110 pounds or 1.57 pound per day, compared to 84 pounds or 1.20 pound per day for the comparative group of calves.

“There was no report of any differences in sickness; however, calves that eat more during the first days after weaning should stay healthier,” Selk said. “A follow-up study demonstrated similar advantages of fence-line contact when calves were weaned under drylot conditions and their dams had access to pasture.”

Source material showcasing the advantages of using fence-line weaning to wean and background, even for short periods, is an abstract put forth as part of the 2002 Western Section of American Society of Animal Science.

Selk said an excellent summary of tips to minimize stress from weaning is New Mexico State University Guide B-221, “Minimizing weaning stress on calves.” Key recommendations include:

  • Provide calves access to the weaning area – pen, trap or pasture – a few weeks prior to weaning so calves do not undergo the stress of environment change at the time of weaning. At weaning, move the cows to a new location when cows and calves are separated at weaning. Do not move the calves.
  • Allow fence-line contact for four to seven days following weaning. Fences should be sturdy and allow nose-to-nose contact while preventing nursing.
  • If fence-line weaning is not possible, move cows far enough away that they cannot hear the calves vocalizing.
  • If weaning in a drylot or corral, place feed bunks, hay, and water troughs along the fence to minimize perimeter walking and increase encounters with feed and water.
  • Placing large water troughs inside the pen and letting water troughs overflow slightly may attract calves to the water and help calves that are accustomed to drinking from live water sources adjust to troughs and to the sounds that occur when the float is activated.
  • Do not add unnecessary stress by castrating, dehorning or branding calves at weaning. These practices should be completed at least three weeks before weaning and preferably prior to three months of age.

“Remember to provide adequate water during hot summer days,” Selk said. “Experienced ranchers who utilize fence-line weaning have found that having plenty of water in the region where the cattle congregate can be a challenge. Plan ahead before you begin the weaning process to be certain that sufficient water can be supplied to both sides of the fence.”

Cattle and calves represent the number one agricultural commodity produced in Oklahoma, accounting for 46 percent of total agricultural cash receipts, according to National Agricultural Statistics Service data.



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