Winning the weaning games

Spring calves are frequently weaned this time of year. Weaning and/or arrival at a new home can be particularly hard for a calf. Most beef calves are weaned by abrupt separation of calves and dams, according to National Animal Health Monitoring System data. While this is the most common approach to weaning, it’s also the most stressful.

It’s easy to see why. Calves are removed from their mothers and a known social structure and placed into a different environment with new friends, different feed and a new water source.

The stress calves experience through weaning is the No. 1 issue that impacts their performance. Stress can depress their immune systems, making freshly weaned calves susceptible to infections. Stressed calves also have lower feed intakes. 

Some producers have limited facilities for drylot weaning or do not have the ability to place dams out of auditory range of their calves. Fence-line pasture weaning provides the opportunity for calves to remain in a familiar environment. Contact weaning allows visual and auditory access to the cow but does not allow calf nursing.

When given a choice, cows will remain within visual and auditory proximity of their calves post-weaning. A common observation is that calves tend to be attached to their mamas for a longer time than cows are to their calves.

But a number of things can be done to reduce stress at weaning and help calves stay healthy and adjust to their new environment.

A good herd health program can help reduce sickness at weaning, improve the treatment response of calves that do get sick and increase the performance of calves during weaning. Preconditioning programs such as MFA Health Track, which involve both vaccination and nutrition protocols, are becoming more popular because they help reduce stress of weaning and increase calf performance and value.

Mineral supplementation when the calves are with their dams prior to weaning may be beneficial for getting good immune response. MFA Ricochet Gold Star minerals have chelated trace minerals—copper, zinc, selenium and manganese—which are important to immune system function. Feeding Ricochet has been shown to improve immune response and reduce calf morbidity. Additionally, feeding Ricochet has been shown to increase the quantity and quality of the dam’s colostrum, which gets the calf off to a better start.

Introducing new feeds to calves while they are with their dams prior to weaning can help calves start on feed more quickly when they are weaned. Feedstuffs should be palatable with minimal fines and dust. MFA Cattle Charge is a good option for a creep feed.

A number of studies have shown calves that were fence-line weaned have lower morbidity compared to those that were weaned through immediate separation from visual and audio contact with their dams. Studies have also shown a significant increase in average daily gain for calves that were fence-line weaned compared to those weaned on a trailer.

Fence-line weaning should be in an environment that allows both cows and calves to spread out along the fence. There should be minimal dust present, and feed and water resources for the calves should be familiar and close to the fence.

A less-stressful weaning method is to put the cows in a corral adjacent to the calves on pasture for three to five days and then remove the cows. Another option is to keep both cows and calves in adjacent pastures for three to five days.

Weaning so that cows and their calves can see and hear each other will decrease bawling and reduce the time calves spend walking the fence looking for mom. Less time walking the fence means more time calves can spend eating.

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