Weaning Calves on the Farm

– Steven C. Loerch, Professor, OSU Animal Sciences Dept.

Weaning, marketing, and starting calves in a feedlot, combine to be the most stressful events in the life of a calf. When these stressors occur in a matter of days, you are asking for trouble. Calves are the most susceptible to shipping fever (Bovine Respiratory Disease) when they are 6-8 months of age. Earlier in life, calves are protected from disease by maternal antibodies from colostrum. When calves are yearlings, they have a fully developed immune system and are better able to respond to a disease challenge.

So what do we typically do as beef producers? We take a 7-month old calf when it is most susceptible to disease and we put a whole bunch of stress on it. Weaning, trucking, vaccination, no feed, no water, crowding, co-mingling, new pathogens, new source of feed, and new source of water. This is a wreck waiting to happen and it often does.

The U.S. beef industry is a $44 billion industry. The health problems due to transitioning calves from the farm to the feedlot cost the industry about $700 million annually. Treatment costs, death losses, poor performance, and lower quality grades result when calves get sick. The best way to reduce these costs is to reduce the stress of transition from the home farm to the feedlot or backgrounder. Taking steps to prevent disease is always better than having to treat disease after it occurs. You can’t solve the Bovine Respiratory Disease Complex with just a bottle of antibiotics.

The best way to keep calves healthy is to vaccinate before calves are stressed and to reduce, eliminate, or spread out the stress calves are exposed to. Details on vaccination strategies will be presented in other articles of this series. Bottom line is that stressed calves don’t respond as well to vaccines. If you don’t vaccinate prior to these stresses, some calves may not develop antibodies soon enough to be protected from respiratory disease the first 10 days after feedlot arrival.

Many management strategies can be employed to reduce calf stress at weaning time. Castration and dehorning is best done when calves are young (1-3 months of age). These procedures should not be performed at weaning time. Calves should be weaned at least 30 days prior to shipping. This separates the stress of weaning from all the other stresses associated with marketing and feedlot arrival. Shipping less than 30 days post weaning is not recommended for several reasons. A 30-day period gives plenty of time for calves to learn how to eat from a feed bunk and recoup the post-weaning check in weight gain. Actually weaning 45 days before shipping may be more profitable because the calf producer will have more pounds of beef to sell. Thirty days also gives plenty of time to respond to vaccines and be better protected from disease challenges.

Weaning Procedures: Calves can be weaned on pasture or they can be confined in a drylot. Supplemental feed is needed to meet energy and protein needs for growth and the immune system. Calves that remain on pasture should be provided with a grain-based supplement in a bunk. Grain intake should be 5-10 lbs/day based on quality of pasture and the eventual destination of the calves (backgrounder vs feedlot). Target gains should be between 2 and 3 lbs/day. There is some evidence from Canadian researchers that weaned calves actually do better if they have fence line contact with their dams. You may want to move cows to a pasture adjacent to the calves, rather than the traditional “out of sight, out of mind” approach. Calves weaned in a drylot should be fed about a 50% grain, 50% forage diet. Feed good quality hay. A weaning diet should be 45-50 Mega calories of NEg/100 lbs of feed dry matter and contain approximately 16% protein. Protein, vitamin, and mineral requirement must be met so calves can grow and have a fully functioning immune system. A high quality protein, vitamin and mineral supplement from a reputable feed company is recommended. Adequate bunk space is necessary so all calves can eat at once (1.5-2 ft/calf). Clean, fresh, water should always be available. Avoid finely ground, dusty feeds. Cracked corn works well and is one of our cheapest source of calories. Creep feed for 2 weeks before weaning will ease the transition to bunk feeding after weaning. Alternatively, fence-line feeding a small amount of grain to cows and calves a few days before weaning is a good substitute if you don’t want to creep feed.

Facilities and Animal Handling: Facilities for handling calves don’t need to be fancy or elaborate. Drylot pens should be small to reduce fence waling and allow closer observation. Pens should be dry but not dusty. I was in Saskatchewan in September, 2001 working on a weaning project and we measured how far calves walk the first two days after weaning. Calves weaned into big feedlot pens (without fence line contact with their dams) walked 10 miles the first two days after weaning. Bawling, dust and exhaustion definitely contribute to Respiratory Disease. Feed and water should be located on the perimeter of the pen because that is where the calves will be. If weaning on pasture, the same principles should be used. Working facilities also don’t need to be fancy, but they should be designed to allow easy movement of calves through the chute. Weaning time is when we realize the fruits of our labor for the year. Weaning time should not be a rodeo. Avoid crowding and bruising calves. Work calves slowly, calmly, and quietly. The process is noisy and stressful for the calf in the best of circumstances. Don’t add to stress with a lot of yelling. Avoid whips and hot shots. This whole process is like putting your child on the bus for the first day of kindergarten. Look for opportunities to be gentle.

In summary, weaning management affects the quality and value of your calves. It is the key component in a planned marketing strategy.