3 Tips for Reducing Weaning Stress in Calves


Weaning is a stressful time for calves and ranchers. The pressure to do things right and keep calves healthy is a top priority. Added stress during weaning could be the difference between a healthy, profitable animal and a sick animal who doesn’t gain efficiently. Or worse, a dead calf.


Data from Texas A&M Ranch to Rail Program found that weaning stress and sickness caused a 17% increase in cost of gain, and a $95 difference in total profit of animals at market. It was also shown that sickness also reduced the ability of the animals to grade well as shown in the 14-percentage point difference between healthy and sick animals that graded Choice.


To help you reduce weaning stress, here are the top 3 ways to keep calves profitable with limited setbacks.


1. Limit Additional Stressors

Weaning is often seen as an opportunity to accomplish multiple things at once. Calves are already rounded up so why not castrate, dehorn, vaccinate, brand and separate them all at once? Don’t do this.


Weaning is already proven to suppress a calf’s immune system, and these additional stressors can make calves more susceptible to pathogens and illness. It’s recommended to work calves and complete all of these tasks at least 3 weeks prior to weaning.


2. Selecting a Weaning Strategy

During weaning you’re removing the calf from its main food source, but also from its mother, its main source of safety and comfort. The calf is then introduced to a new environment and exposed to new animals. All of which compounds stress in these animals.


One way to lower stress is by implementing weaning strategies that help break the nursing bond slowly over time rather than the ‘cold-turkey’ style of traditional weaning.


One weaning strategy is fence-line weaning. In fence-line weaning, you remove the calf or the cow from the current pasture they’re in and place them in an adjacent pasture separated by a fence that allows visual and nose-to-nose contact but does not allow the calf to nurse. This process will take about 7-14 days, and you will notice both the calves and the cows spending less time around the shared fence. At that time, the calves are completely removed from their mother and are sent off to their next location.


Another weaning strategy is two-stage weaning. With this method, you keep the cow and the calf in the same pasture, but around 7-14 days before separation you place a nose flap on the calf that prevents it from suckling on the cow. This allows the calf to be weaned off the mom as a food source, but still allows both the calf and cow to be in contact with one another. After 7-14 days, the calf is removed and separated from its mother.


Both fence-line and two-stage weaning can reduce stress in calves. These methods have been shown to increase the amount of time eating and lying down while reducing the time spent walking as well as vocalizations (bawling).


Although these methods promote less stress, they do require more time and labor and additional infrastructure by ranchers and farmers. Overall, the best weaning method is whichever one fits the capabilities and the goals of your operation. No matter which method is used, the reduction of stress should be the number one goal.


3. Implementing Good Weaning Nutrition

Along with selecting a weaning strategy, weaning nutrition can also impact calf performance. Post-weaning calves can be turned out to grass. However, this may require some supplementation, especially with late season grasses as protein and energy start to wane in forages.


Some ranchers and farmers prefer to wean onto a dry lot. In this situation, you can wean on grass hay or a total mixed ration (TMR). If using a TMR, introduce concentrate and fermented feeds gradually over time, offering more grass hay at the beginning and transitioning to a more silage and corn-based diet as time goes on. This will help keep the calves on feed while they get used to a new feed source and prevent any incidences of acidosis. If possible, it’s a good idea to introduce any new food source prior to weaning to help the calves get familiar with it before they're separated.


The goal is to get calves on feed as soon as possible. The longer calves go without eating the further behind they get and the weaker their immune system becomes.


How Ralco Can Help

Ralco has been helping farmers and ranchers keep their calves and cows healthy and focused on converting nutrients to growth for the last 50 years. With patented approaches in essential oils, prebiotics and microbial processes, Ralco beef products are designed to help naturally lower stress and keep animals healthy.

Fight Strong® for Cattle is a natural feed additive containing patented Microbial Catalyst®, Microfused® Essential Oils and Actifibe® Prebiotic that helps get calves on feed fast and supports immunity during weaning stress.


See how beef producers Ken and Mary in Ree Heights, South Dakota use Fight Strong for Cattle to lower stress, get calves eating and keep them healthy.



For any questions on weaning or Fight Strong for Cattle, contact Ralco’s ruminant nutritionist Dr. Jeff Hill by calling 507-337-6916 or emailing RuminantHelp@RalcoAgriculture.com.