The next 2-3 months can be a stressful time of the year for the cow, the calf and the farmer/rancher. Probably the most critical weaning decisions a farmer/rancher needs to make are gauging when and where to wean. USDA's National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) reports that the average weaning age of beef calves in the U.S. is a little over seven months of age. Over three-quarters of these producers reported weaning calves between 5½ - 8½ months of age.
The interesting part of the NAHMS survey is that producers reported a lack of flexibility in selection of weaning time. Relatively few ranchers indicated that cow condition, forage availability or market price drove the decision of when to wean calves.
The objective of a weaning program is to get the calves separated from their mothers and on their own as efficiently and painlessly as possible. This should be when lactation declines and calf gain begins to decrease. Another tell tale sign is when the cow starts pushing the calf off of her udders.
Diets for weaned calves can be purchased or farm/ranch-developed. The advantage to purchased feeds is they're more likely to be balanced for energy, protein, fiber and minerals. In addition, many of them can contain medications recommended by a veterinarian or nutritionist. On an operation such as ours, there is no guess work involved. By the time our cow’s naturally wean their calves between 6 & 8 months of age their rumens are developed enough to properly process the forages in our pastures. We never separate our calves from their mothers, when needed we will separate the younger heifers from the bull, but they stay with their mothers to do away with the stress of weaning which directly relates to the loss of daily gains this time of the season.
Some important considerations in weaning management include:
Dust - Dust causes severe irritation to the respiratory tract. If you keep calves in pens, sprinkle the pens with water to keep dust down when using wood shavings. The same is especially advisable in pig pens. Wheat straw is a better bet, but if shavings are all you have access to, keep the pen's dust-free!
Bawling - This is another irritant to the upper respiratory tract. Not to mention your neighbors or weekend house guests. To minimize bawling, separate the calves from the cows so they can't hear each other. A good start would be to keep them out of site. Either over the hill (if you have any), or on the other side of the barn. Or better yet, if you have the option, on another farm. Some producers are fortunate to have multiple facilities/farm locations.
Dehydration - Some calves are not acquainted with water troughs and are so busy bawling they don't take time to find the water and drink. Use of a water source similar to one they may have been around may help. We've seen producers that use nipple waterers that are primarily utilized in pig production with the end of a nipple from a calf bottle secured over the end. Place a water trough directly under the nipple and they'll learn how to drink out of the trough by experimentation!
Feed change - A change in diet from milk replacer to calf starter/grower grain to strictly grass/hay/pasture, requires the growth of different organisms in the rumen to digest the feed. This change can take up to two weeks. This is obviously only for producers that separate the calves from the heifers/cows such as in a dairy setting or Beef feed-lot. We don't separate our calves because that is what has worked best for us and our cattle. We allow the calves (steers or heifers), to naturally wean themselves from the udder to the pasture. In doing so, we relieve any weaning stress on the calf.
There are about as many weaning strategies as there are ranchers. Over the past 10-15 years, the beef industry has become more aware of the value of pre- and post-weaning calf health management and marketing management. It's worthwhile to explore the various "cookbook" weaning programs and regimes available.
· One concept that's been getting a lot of attention is fenceline weaning, which allows cows and calves to have several days of fenceline contact, but calves are unable to nurse through the fence. This requires adequate facilities to allow for feeding and watering the calves, and the fence must be tight enough to prevent the calf from getting back in with the cow.
· Early weaning is a management practice sometimes used during drought conditions, or when forage quantity is less than desirable. Early weaning is often used to improve cow condition for rebreeding, particularly when forage is limiting. Research shows mixed results on the economics of early weaning.
· Extended weaning may make sense in times when feed costs are high and when grazing forages aren't a limiting factor. A Florida study shows that fall-calving cows can nurse calves for up to two months beyond a standard weaning age of 7-8 months and significantly increase calf weaning weight without affecting cow reproduction.
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