Stirring the Pot at Weaning

– Dr. Jeff Lehmkuhler, Associate Extension Professor, University of Kentucky

The many challenges facing the beef industry today sometimes can seem a bit overwhelming. Issues such as lab grown meat, trade negotiations, genomics, antibiotic utilization, sustainability, and so many other issues are thrown into the stone soup of beef production. At some point you have to wonder when will the soup be spoiled by so many spices. The best thing you can do is be familiar with the components you are adding. This means we need to be as informed as we possibly can about our industry’s driving forces.

What main ingredient is stirred into the industry “soup pot” every fall? This time of year folks are weaning and marketing their spring-born calf crop. Weaning is a transition phase for calves and, to keep our “soup” from spoiling, we need to be knowledgeable of management practices that can reduce the stress that calves experience due to the many changes during this period. Stressors a calf may experience at this time include dam and herd separation, diet change from milk and grass to hay and grain, castration / dehorning, and altering the physical location of calf from pasture to a drylot pen. All these factors can stress the calf (add spice to the soup pot) especially if another “spice” is added. A major spice that can ruin the weaning soup is weather. The drastic weather changes we experienced this past week (daily average temperature dropped 30-35 degrees F in one week) add a major “spice” to the stressed-calf soup pot. The weather impacts our markets that were a bit soft the other week as yards had muddy pen conditions and perhaps were reluctant to place bawling calves. You can’t control the weather, but you can control when and how you market the calf crop.

What is the normal “recipe” for weaning soup? 1) Abruptly remove calves from their dams, 2) load them into a trailer to transport them to market facility, 3) separate them from herd mates, 4) haul them to an unfamiliar location and commingling with strange calves, and 5) transport them several hours to a completely different state with different climate conditions and surroundings. No wonder this soup often spoils?! We have all seen this recipe before. The question is how long will we be allowed to make this entrée?

Change is hard and replicating the perfect recipe often never happens. However, the more care we take to follow the recipe the greater the chance the results will be similar to the last time. Vaccinating calves prior to weaning will boost immunity. Weaning on pasture eliminates the physical location change. Fenceline weaning may ease dam separation and allow calves to rebound quicker. Castrating and dehorning at a young age is one more element that does not have to be associated with this time of year. By planning and applying simple management practices and making slight alterations, we have changed our recipe and in many instances simplified our weaning recipe.

Less stress on the calf, means less stress on you. This is not the only reward. In many markets this fall it appears that the value of a weaned calf is being communicated and higher prices are being paid. I will argue that sometimes you shouldn’t have to be rewarded for doing what is right, but that’s an argument we can have over dinner sometime.