Success in Weaning Your Calves

For many cow/calf operations throughout the region, weaning of fall born calves is either upon us or soon to arrive.  Working cattle and the weaning process can be stressful on producers, their families, and the cattle they tend to every day.  With just a little management, much of that stress can be reduced, making things easier on you and your cattle and hopefully leave a little more money in your pocket.

One of the major keys to success in weaning your calves is keeping the calves healthy.  Numerous studies conducted across the country have shown that calves that become sick and have to be doctored tend to lag their healthy counterparts in rate of gain in the feedlot and carcass quality on the rail.  A major contributor to animal health at weaning is the level of stress the calves undergo through weaning.  Much like people, an increased level of stress in livestock leads to fatigue and weakens the immune system.  Here are a few tips to help reduce the stress level put on your calves during weaning:

  1. Work cattle in a calm smooth manner.  Try and avoid getting over excited with the animals as it can lead to fear in the herd and added problems down the road, increasing the likelihood of sick calves and added doctoring expenses.
  2. Try using a fence line weaning approach where the calves are allowed to have contact with their mothers across the fence.  Allowing them to remain in close proximity to one another tends to reduce the amount of bawling and gives them a sense of security.   Within a few days, the calves will be accustomed to being separated from their mother and they can be separated.  Although facility layout doesn’t always allow for contact between the cow and calf, it is something to consider for the future.
  3. Remove objects that may excite cattle by making loud or unusual sounds and out of place shadows,  Things such as loose tin, broken feed troughs or hay rings and poor fencing are all common culprits leading to unusual noises or movements that can startle calves.

Proper nutrition is another key player in the successful weaning equation.  Nutrition plays a vital role in maintaining healthy calves and sets the stage for success for the rest of the calf’s life.  Here are a few simple steps to ensure you get your calves off to a good start:

  1. Allow free choice access to clean fresh water at all times.  Place the water source along a fence line where it is easily found by incoming calves scoping out their new surroundings.
  2. Allow free choice access to either grass or good quality grass hay.
  3. Weaning is a good time to introduce calves to a grain supplement.  Remember to start them off slow and gradually increase the amount of feed allowing the rumen to get acclimated to a new feed source.  This will get them used to coming to the bunk as well as getting them more comfortable with having people in their surroundings.  

Following a good vaccination regime will be a big help with animal health as well.  Vaccinations for respiratory diseases, clostridial bacteria, and a deworming product are all important components of a successful vaccination program.  Develop a good working relationship with your veterinarian and ask for recommendations on what products will work best for your individual situation.  Keep in mind that most vaccinations require 2 rounds of shots 2-4 weeks apart to be most effective. 

Many pharmaceutical and feed companies have weaning programs that can give a marketing advantage at selling time.  The programs will have a set protocol to follow that gives cattle buyers some assurance that the calves have been handled in a way that makes them more likely to succeed in the next phase of growth.  If you choose to follow one of these types of programs, make sure that your livestock market knows the history behind the calves so they have some selling points.

Find a system that works well for your operation and stick with it.  Not every operation is the same and what works wonderfully for your neighbor may not work at all for you.  Work closely with your veterinarian and get advice from others.  As always, your local University of Missouri Extension Center is a good source of information or you can log on to our website at extension.missouri.edu .

Source: Andy McCorkill, Livestock Specialist