Harvest time is weaning time.
This can be a stressful and somewhat noisy time for the cow, the calf and the farmer/rancher. Probably the most critical weaning decisions a rancher needs to make are gauging when and how 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. Of course with the drought experienced by the majority of Beef producers this past summer, weaning weights will be lighter because calves are being shipped to be back grounded / finished sooner than normal due to the lack of forages.
The objective of a weaning program is to get the calves separated from their mothers and on their own as efficiently and stress-free as possible. This should be when lactation declines and calf gain begins to decrease. If for some reason you feed, or plan to feed your cattle grain, diets for weaned calves can be purchased or 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, as well as an obscene price due to lack of grain availability this fall.
Some important considerations in weaning management include:
Dust - Dust causes severe irritation to the respiratory tract of almost all livestock. If you don’t have the resources to allow your calves access to pasture and have to keep them in pens, "sprinkle" don’t soak the pens with water to keep dust down if 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! This time of the year is when pastured piglets are most susceptible to pneumonia. With day’s that still reach the 80’s and cold rainy nights that dip into the low 40’s dust from shaving or even dry feed could instigate pneumonia. To combat inhalated dust from feed we add water to make a "mash" of their corn/oat/alfalfa hay chop. That way it has a thick oatmeal like consistency which also makes it more palatable for 6-8 week old weaning piglets.
Sorry, I got a little off track with the pigs. Let's get back to things to look out for in your weaning calves.
Bawling - This is another irritant to the upper respiratory tract. Not to mention irritating your neighbors (if you have any), or weekend house guests. To minimize bawling - unless "fenceline weaning" - 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. Or do like we do and let them wean naturally. We’ve found that our Beefalo calves naturally wean them selves by the time they are 7-8 months old. Than the heifers or cow’s have 1-2 months to recuperate before they have their next calf.
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 – For most dairy producers calves, 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. We don't separate our calves because that is what has worked best for us and our Beefalo cattle. As I previously stated, we allow our 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.
Why is stress the most important challenge to overcome when weaning calves? The University of Minnesota's Bethany Funnell, DVM, explains that stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol - a catabolic steroid that has negative effects on the immune system. This not only makes a calf more susceptible to respiratory disease, but decreases the calf's ability to respond to any vaccines that you might administer. Because of this, it's important to get the first dose of vaccine into the calves while they're still nursing, when stress levels are low. If you DO NOT have a "closed-herd" there are two major groups of vaccines that should be considered to assist weaning - those for clostridial diseases and those for respiratory diseases. If you're unsure which vaccines to use, contact your herd-health veterinarian. If you do have a closed-herd, vaccinations might be something to consider NOT administering. On our farm, we have found that our breed of beef cattle do not need vaccines. We don’t bring outside cattle onto our farm. Every animal we have was born on our farm, and bred with a bull that was born on our farm to heifers/cow’s that were born on our farm. This is the definition of a true "closed-herd" This has worked for us, but might not work for everyone’s herd.
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 & HOT 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 limited like this year. However, 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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