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 that 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 three 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 three weeks prior to weaning.
2. Selecting a Weaning Strategy
During weaning you’re removing the calf from its main food source, its mother, but also its main source of safety and comfort. The calf is then introduced to a new environment and exposed to new animals. All of which compound stress in animals.
One way to lower stress is by implementing weaning strategies that help break the nursing bond slowly over time rather than going ’cold-turkey’ with 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.
3. Implementing Good Weaning Nutrition
When it comes to weaning, nutrition plays a crucial role in calf performance. While turning calves out to grass after weaning is an option, it’s important to supplement their diet, especially when late-season grasses have lower protein and energy levels.
The key is to get calves on feed as soon as possible. The longer calves go without eating, the higher the risk for setbacks and a weaker immune system.
To smoothly transition calves to feed, start by offering small amounts of feed and gradually increasing it over time. During the initial days of weaning, it’s crucial to provide clean, high-quality grass hay, since this is familiar to all calves.
Start by feeding weaned calves at least twice per day. This not only encourages their appetite but also helps identify any sick animals that aren’t eating. Clean water is also essential for their digestion, so make sure they have easy access to it.
For those who prefer weaning in a dry lot, you can choose between grass hay or a total mixed ration (TMR). When using a TMR, introduce concentrate and fermented feeds gradually, starting with more grass hay and transitioning to a diet heavier in silage and corn as time goes on. This approach helps calves adjust to the new feed source and prevents acidosis.
If possible, introduce any new food sources before weaning to familiarize the calves with them beforehand.
Get Weaned Calves Off to the Best Start
Ralco has been helping farmers and ranchers keep their calves and cows healthy and profitable for over 50 years. With patented approaches in essential oils, prebiotics and microbial processes, Ralco’s beef products are designed to help naturally lower stress and keep animals healthy.
Fight Strong® Pellet is a calf feed additive containing patented Microbial Catalyst®, Microfused® Essential Oils and Actifibe® Prebiotic that helps get calves on feed fast and supports immunity during weaning.
See how beef producers Ken and Mary in Ree Heights, South Dakota use Fight Strong to lower stress, get calves on feed and keep them healthy.