Weaning calves is a delicate process for producers and a risky one for the cattle, but it can also set both calves and mothers on a course for better health in the long-run. With feed prices rising, establishing a plan for weaning is especially important now.

Why wean?

Weaning transitions calves to a stage where they eat primarily forage. It also helps cows conserve energy and focus on gestation. To stay profitable for producers, a cow with a nursing calf is often pregnant. By weaning the calf, the cow is free to spend less energy on milk production and more on its pregnancy, resulting in a healthier next generation of calves.

Management and husbandry systems can also benefit from weaning. By separating and grouping animals by life stage, a herdsman can better attend to the nutritional and management needs of a group. For instance, weaned calves that aren’t intended to be replacement stock can be fed diets that help with growth and carcass quality.

What to watch out for

The main concern when weaning is minimizing stress, which weakens the immune system. Both cows and calves are more vulnerable to pathogens during weaning, and they’re also more likely to have a negative reaction to vaccines.

Stressful animal husbandry practices, such as dehorning or castration, should also be avoided while weaning if possible. For producers that need to perform multiple vaccinations or animal husbandry practices at the same time, there are still ways to promote animal health, including good nutrition, low-stress handling best practices and a clean environment.

Types of weaning

The most direct way to wean a calf is abrupt weaning, which involves simply taking the calf away from the mother. It has the benefit of being uncomplicated, but the downside is that it causes significant stress for the calf and cow, potentially leading to one or both of them getting sick later.

Quiet weaning requires placing a special device on the calf’s head. It flips up when the calf puts its head down to eat or drink, letting the calf forage and drink water unimpeded. However, when the calf tries to nurse off its mother, a flap comes down that prevents nursing. This approach is less stressful than abrupt weaning, but putting the device on the calf and removing it can still cause stress.

Fence-line weaning is easy for producers and even less stressful for cattle. By creating a system of pastures or pens that share a common fence, calves and cows can see, hear, smell and interact with each other throughout the weaning process, which reduces stress. The downside of this approach is that it requires more land and fencing. It’s also not guaranteed to be effective, as the calf may manage to escape into the mother’s pen.

To use fence-line weaning, first inspect corrals, chutes and pens. Fencing needs to be strong enough to withstand pressure from the cow or calf as well as long enough to provide many places for the animals to interact. If the fence is too short, the cattle may cause damage to the ground or fence as they linger in one spot.

Preparation and implementation

Producers need to always be thinking ahead in the production process. In the case of weaning, that means preparing during calving season or before breeding season. When choosing to precondition calves, purchase vaccines and plan out a diet well in advance.

Whichever approach producers choose, they should flexible and willing to adjust their plan accordingly to keep calves healthy and productive.

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