There are three keys to successful calf weaning says K.C. Olson, animal science nutritionist at the University of Missouri: "Keep the calves out of the mud, get them to eat as much as possible as soon as possible, and use a well-structured vaccination program. Pasture weaning accomplishes two out of those three goals."

Many producers move their calves to drylots and feed them a weaning ration where they are subjected to social stress, physical stress and environmental stress. At the Forage Systems Research Center in Linneus, Mo., an alternative weaning management program has successfully reduced the physical and social stress factors experienced by the calves. The key component is the use of stockpiled tall fescue pastures instead of lots for weaning.

"The elimination of animal concentration and the resulting dust and mud greatly reduces the threat of disease in the newly weaned calves," says Dennis Jacobs, supervisor of the Forage Systems Research Center in Lenneus, Mo. "By keeping the calves on pasture, their diet needn't change. If calves are used to eating standing forage, that should be the first choice for a weaning ration."

Cattle with muddy, wet hides have a maintenance energy requirement that is 35 percent higher than calves with dry, mud-free coats, Olson said. "The other thing pasture weaning will provide is feed that is highly nutritious and palatable, something the calf is highly familiar with." He said the forage should be supplemented with 2 to 4 pounds per day of dried distillers' grain, corn gluten feed, soybean hulls or whole-shelled corn, for example to familiarize the calf with solid, non-forage feeds. Small amounts of concentrate feeds also increase the energy and protein density in the diet at a time when intake is likely to be perilously low.

Some stress during weaning is unavoidable. It's how we manage that stress that makes the difference. Eliminate physical stress from weaning by doing castrating, vaccinations and dehorning at least 30 days before weaning. With a formidable fence, stress can be reduced further with cross-fence weaning, allowing mother and calf to socialize but not nurse.