Weaning is one of the most stressful times in a young calf’s life. Similar to a preschooler’s first day of school, calves are taken away from their mother, put in a new environment and given unfamiliar food. Then stress and panic start 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.
With new antibiotic regulations that went into effect in 2023, all previous over-the-counter (OTC) antibiotics used in livestock and companion animals will require a prescription (Rx) from a licensed veterinarian to help preserve antibiotic use in both human and animal health.
Learn everything you need to know about upcoming antibiotic-use changes and how to keep your calves healthy during weaning. Ralco’s ruminant nutritionists have gathered all the essential information for farmers and ranchers, providing the best management practices and natural alternatives.
Weaning Stress: How it Impacts Calves
Weaning, the transition from one environment and food source to another, can be quite a journey for a calf. Imagine being taken away from your mother, who’s been your everything - your protector and provider. That’s what a calf goes through.
Not only is the calf separated from its mother, but it’s also introduced to new places and animals. All of these changes can really stress out a calf, and they’ll often start making more noise (lots of bawling), eating less, walking more and resting less.
Ultimately, all this stress can take a toll on the calf’s health. They’ll often lose weight and have a weaker immune system which makes them more likely to get sick.
By making good management decisions, we can help minimize weaning stress and improve the animal’s overall health.
Learn more about weaning stress in this webinar presented by a Ralco Ruminant Nutritionist.
Choosing the Best Weaning Strategies
Looking for the most effective weaning strategies? Try these two options that are proven to reduce weaning stress for both cows and calves.
Option 1: Fence-line weaning
Separate the calf or the cow from their current pasture and place them in an adjacent pasture. A fence will separate them, allowing visual and nose-to-nose contact. This process takes about 7-14 days, during which you’ll observe less time spent near the shared fence. Once this phase is complete, the calves can be completely removed from their mothers and sent to their new location.
Option 2: Two-stage weaning
Keep the cow and the calf in the same pasture, but prior to separation (7-14 days beforehand), equip the calf with a nose flap to prevent it from nursing. This lets the calf gradually wean off its mother as a food source while still maintaining contact between the calf and cow. When the designated time is up, the calf is ready to be separated from its mother.
Both fence-line and two-stage weaning are proven to help reduce stress in calves, increasing their time eating and laying down while minimizing walking and bawling. While these methods may require extra time, labor, and infrastructure, they are worth considering. Don’t forget that weaning nutrition and vaccinations also play a vital role in lowering animal stress during this.
Choose the best weaning strategies and management decisions based on your operation’s abilities and goals, with stress reduction as the top priority.
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.
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 on the next calf crop could be economically devastating.
It’s recommended to keep a close eye on the 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 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 stay healthy during weaning, 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 had a two-year implementation strategy that went 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.
Keep Weaned 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® Pellet 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 at weaning.
See how a cow-calf producer in Iowa used Fight Strong at weaning to lower stress and keep calves healthy.
Give your calves the extra boost they need at weaning. Learn more about Fight Strong or buy now!