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Winning Weaning Woes

September 20, 2018

Weaning time is here which can be a stressfull event for calves, cows and families alike. While preconditioning prepares the immune system to better handle the stress of weaning, there are some other areas of the ranch that can be modified to aid calf adjustment to life without mom.


Practice makes perfect. If cows and calves are comfortable being separated, both will better adjust on weaning day. Taking time a few days prior to weaning to bring in pairs and keep them separated for a few hours while both have access to feed and water can be a starting point. Trying this in a pasture setting is done by bringing pairs to a fence and allows cows to pass through and calves to follow parallel down the fenceline.

Pen Preparation

Traditional weaning processes involve removing calves from cows at one time and starting them on feed in a pen setting. If using dry-lot pens, making water available at all times is critical. This can be done by adding an extra water along a fence line that calves will will walk into and also allowing water tanks to over flow so calves can find them easier. Clean water tanks also enhance calf performance and promote adequate water intake as bawling calves are prone to respiratory disease.

Pen size can be adjusted to reduce space available for calves to walk. Smaller pens increase the opportunities for calves to find feed and water and reduce the potential for dust problems. This can be done by setting up temporary panels and cutting the pen in half. After a few days, remove panels and the calves can spread out.

Calves also need to become accustomed to people. Walking calves up to the bunk right after feeding encourages feeding behaviors and acclimates them to handling at the same time. It is much easier to find and treat sick calves without additional stress if they are used to being handled. Calves that are afraid of people are surprisingly good at hiding signs of illness, at least until they become very sick. Investing time and effort to improve cattle handling skills pays dividends, especially considering the challenges in finding employees with livestock experience.

Feed Bunks vs. Grass

Calves learn grazing behavior from their dams. While cow/calf pairs spend most of their time grazing pastures in the summer, weaning time may be the first time calves will eat from a bunk. Providing long stem hay in the bunk helps attract calves to feed and promotes saliva production and healthy rumen function. Combining roughage with higher concentrate feeds helps calves achieve a positive energy balance more quickly.

Steers vs. Heifers

Separating weaned calves into groups based on gender is helpful is making sure eveyone gets off on the right foot. Steers and heifers are usually fed very similar diets during the starting phase, but that often changes later in the feeding period. Depending on marketing objectives and whether or not the heifers are destined to be replacements, steers and heifers may be fed different diets with different implant strategies. Sorting the calves into their eventual groups at the outset reduces the amount of stress caused a second sort and the re-establishment of social groups.

If these seem like uneccessary steps to take, look at it from another angle. When we arrive at a hotel, we enjoy a nice clean room with hot water and even continental breakfest most of the time. Why would calves expect anything less at weaning time? (2018 Low Stress Cattle Handling Demonstration. Dr. Lukasiewicz, Production Animal Consultation).

Source: Taylor Grussing, iGrow