By Peggy Joseph-Potter RN, BSN, MHA
Weaning is more about the health of the cow than the calf. Lactation requires 50% more feed, 70% more energy, and twice as much protein as pregnancy alone. As Fall approaches and pastures decline, difficulties can arise as breeders attempt to maintain the cow in good body condition for Spring calving. It is therefore more prudent to wean mature calves rather than continue to supplement the pregnant cow. Calves are usually ready to wean at 5-7 months of age, however they can be weaned sooner if conditions necessitate the separation of calves and cows.
Spring calves means Fall weaning. Weaning is one of the most stressful times in your calf’s short life. While the mature calf no longer needs to supplements its nutritional needs with mama’s milk it depends on her for its emotional needs. Planning, preconditioning and optimizing your calf’s health make this a much less distressing transition. The old timers may have many stories and methods for completing this process; newer research provides opportunities to make this a much less traumatic experience for young calves.
In this article, I will discuss some of the new ways, some of the old ways and provide you with supporting data that may help you to make the best decision for your situation.
Pre-conditioning is essential for the maintenance of health and immunity in the newly weaned calf. Providing essential nutrients through the introduction of bunk and creep feeders allows calves to acclimate their eating habits to prevent weight loss during this stressful period. Preconditioning calves involves getting them used to eating and drinking out of a bunk feeder or trough. This should be done without the cows around, as cows tend to be more pushy and bossy around the feeders and may not let the calves in at all.
A creep feed or precondition ration for calves should include a mix of grain silage and legume-hay, with the addition of a concentrate supplement that includes protein. There are many good calf starter products available and your local feed store can help you develop a program to meet your needs. Make sure any supplement provided does not contain animal byproducts due to the danger of BSE. Try to keep feeders free from mold and dust as their presence may lead to the development of pneumonias.
The goal is to minimize the stress level of both mom and calf during the weaning process, therefore other stress-laden procedures such as vaccinations, castration and dehorning should precede any attempt to separate the pair. Calves should also have good parasite control products introduced either as a pour-on or through injection prior to weaning, as they are more susceptible to worms during this period. We also try to break our calves to tie and lead before weaning as this socializes them to the human presence and reduces that which is unfamiliar after they leave their moms.
Methods for Weaning: There are several methods for weaning, ranging from low stress natural to abrupt separation.
Natural weaning takes place without human intervention. The calves and cows are left together until the calf decides it no longer needs to nurse or the mother cow kicks it off prior to the arrival of her next calf. This technique provides the least amount of stress to the calf however; it takes its toll on the bred cow as their bodies try to prepare for the birth of yet another calf. They will usually lack the conditioning necessary to supplement their newborn’s needs leading to a lower birth weight calf.
Traditional corral weaning. This method can be traumatic for calves as they are abruptly removed from their mothers and separated at the same ranch or shipped to a new location. Weight loss is likely to continue to occur until the calf adapts to its new surroundings. Significant preconditioning is necessary to sustain the calves during the process and there may be permanently lower conditioning than a calf weaned in a less stressful manner. Some of these changes can be prevented by removing the cows and leaving the calves in an area with other cattle that are familiar to them.
Pasture Weaning. The combining of pasture weaning with fence-line weaning can be accomplished simply by placing them side by side and moving the cows to another location, this allows the calves to stay in an area familiar to them. Pasture weaning is ideal when drought conditions are not present as free-choice grazing allows the calves to eat as desired. Since we place our cow-calf pair on pasture after the first 15-30 days this transition has been easiest for us to accomplish. That does not mean we do not have some disruption for the first day or two however, we have found this method the most humane and least stressful for the pair.
Fence-Line Weaning. This method allows calves to maintain physical contact with the cows and in most cases prevents the calves from nursing. It works best if an electric wire is present and even better if a double fence is available to keep the mother and calf separated. We have had a few of the most determined calves get through what we thought was adequate fencing. Fence-line weaning allows the pair to see and smell each other but prevents the calves from nursing. They generally will stop trying after the first three to five days.
Spiked Nose ring weaning. Nose rings or flaps can be applied to the calf’s nose to prevent suckling. This method allows the cow and calf to stay together in the same pasture or paddock. The nose flaps are noxious to the cow as they contain uncomfortable spikes that prevent the cow from accepting the calf’s gestures to nurse. Calves will usually stop trying after the first three to five days. However it can take two or three weeks for the cow’s bag to dry up; therefore do not take the rings off too soon, or you will have to start all over.
The goal in any weaning process you chose is to minimize the stress level on both the cow and calf. For the calf, even a vaccinated animal can have reduced immunity leading to the development of disease especially those affecting the lungs such as pneumonias. The pregnant cow adapts more easily after the first 3-5 days, however it may take longer if she is a first time mother.
Wean calves during good weather to reduce stress and possible disease processes,
Separate cows and calves so that they can still see and smell each other,
Do stressful procedures such as breaking, vaccinating, castrating, and dehorning prior to weaning,
Feed calves in bunk or creep feeder to acclimate them to eating and drinking on their own,
Provide adequate nutrition through appropriate rations of grain, hay, and supplements,
Socialize your animals prior to weaning to decrease their fear of the unknown,
Wean animals in surroundings with familiar, compatible paddock mates.
Having healthy, happy calves takes planning and preparation. The transition for both cow and calf can be made low stress by taking a few extra steps to reduce the fear and provide a sense of security for your animals
(1997). Feeding and Handling Calves. In M. &. Ensminger, Beef Cattle Science (p. 727). Danville: Interstate Publishers, Inc.
Thomas, H. S. (1998). Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle. Storey Publishing.