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How to Wean Calves for a Stronger Herd

How to Wean Calves for a Stronger Herd

Weaning is one of the most stressful times in a young calf’s life. Similar to a preschoolers first day of school, calves are taken away from their mother, put in a new environment and given unfamiliar food. Then stress and panic starts to set in, and often everyone starts to cry, or in the calf’s case, bawl.

The manner in which farmers and ranchers manage weaning stress can play a major role in the performance, health and overall lifetime profitability of calves. Weaning stress can also impact the quality of the final product being produced - beef. In fact, even animals that don’t show any clinical signs of illness after weaning, can still have a decrease in performance due to prior exposure to viral or bacterial challenges during this time.

Now, new antibiotic regulations coming into effect in 2023 will require over the counter (OTC) antibiotics used in livestock and companion animals to have prescriptions (Rx) from a licensed veterinarian to help preserve antibiotic use in both human and animal health.

To help navigate these new regulations during weaning, Ralco’s ruminant nutritionists have put together everything farmers and ranchers need to know about the upcoming antibiotic-use changes and how to keep calves healthy using best management practices and natural alternatives.

Weaning Stress: How it Impacts Calves

Weaning is the process of transitioning a calf from its current environment and source of nutrition to a completely different one. The calf is removed from its main food source, its mother, who it’s depended on for things like safety and comfort its whole life.

The calf is then introduced to new environments and exposed to new animals. All of these changes cause immense stress to a calf. Stress symptoms often include increased vocalizations (bawling), decreased intake, more time spent walking and less time spent lying down.

Calves experiencing weaning stress will tend to lose weight and have a suppressed immune system, making them more susceptible to disease.

Although weaning will always cause some stress in calves, there are ways to minimize it through management decisions.

Learn more about weaning stress and receiving calves in this webinar presented by Brandon Rodriguez, Ralco Ruminant Nutritionist.

Choosing the Best Weaning Strategies

One way to do this is by implementing a fence-line weaning protocol. 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 in that time, 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 mothers and are sent off to their next location.

Another weaning strategy that can help with stress mitigation is two-stage weaning. With this method, you keep the cow and the calf in the same pasture, but about 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.

How to Wean Calves for a Stronger Herd

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 while reducing the time spent walking as well as vocalizations. Although these methods promote less stress, they are more time consuming and require more labor and possibly additional infrastructure.

Weaning nutrition and vaccinations also play a major role in lowering overall stress of animals. Ultimately, the best weaning strategies and management decisions should be selected by the ability and goals of the operation with reduction of stress being number one.

Related: 3 Tips for Weaning Healthy Calves

When to Wean Calves

Calves are often weaned around 6-8 months of age. However, calves on high-quality forages or creep feed/concentrates can be weaned as early as 90 days.

Early weaning calves is often used to induce cycling and breeding efficiency in cows or to add body condition before the next calving season. Research conducted at the Eastern Oregon Agriculture Research Center found that cows with traditionally weaned calves (207 days) lost almost a full body condition score (BCS) and 88 lbs. While cows with early weaned calves gained 18 lbs. and maintained BCS.

Related: How to Add Cow Body Condition after Weaning

Early weaning is more labor intensive, more stressful on calves and requires more work to keep calves healthy but the benefit of maintaining or adding body condition may outweigh the risk in some cases. If body condition isn’t monitored or becomes worse, the economic impact to the next calf crop could be economically devastating.

It’s recommended to keep a close eye on BCS of cows and wean accordingly. If cows are in poor body condition, early weaning may be necessary but typically a safe time frame for healthy calves and cows is around 140-150 days. Too early, and calves will have trouble getting started on feed, be more disease prone and require more labor.

How to Wean Calves for a Stronger Herd

How to Manage Sick Calves with GFI 263

As mentioned earlier, stress causes a suppression of the immune system. This leaves calves highly susceptible to bacterial and viral challenges. And sick cattle won’t gain weight as efficiently.

Respiratory disease is one of the biggest causes of economic loss in the beef cattle industry during weaning. According to data from the Texas A&M Ranch to Rail Program, sickness caused a 17% increase in cost of gain over the life of the animal, and a $95 difference in total profit. It was also shown that sickness reduced the ability of the animal to grade Choice with a 14-percentage point difference between healthy and sick animals.

The stark difference in profit and grading potential of a stressed animal vs. a healthy animal is drastic. To help calves, farmers and ranchers should always focus on lowering stress and managing pathogen load.

New rules outlined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in June of 2021, called the guidance for industry (GFI) 263 will no longer allow farmers and ranchers to purchase previously OTC antibiotics - often used during weaning to treat sick animals - and now will require a prescription from a licensed veterinarian. GFI 263 has a two-year implementation strategy that will go fully into effect in June 2023.

With new antibiotic rules, the importance of proper weaning strategies, nutrition and management practices will be more important than ever before.

Related: GFI 263: What it Means for Your Cattle Herd

Let Ralco Help Keep Calves Naturally Healthy

For the last 50 years, Ralco has been helping beef producers use natural alternatives to keep their cows and calves healthy and focused on converting nutrients to growth. All products use patented approaches in essential oils, prebiotics and microbial processes that do not require a VFD or GFI 263.

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 the immunity of animals during times of stress with weaning.

See how a cow/calf producer in Iowa uses Fight Strong for Cattle at weaning to lower stress and keep calves healthy.

For any questions on weaning or