Harvest time is weaning time in cow-calf country. This can be a stressful time for the cow, the calf and the farmer/rancher. Probably the most critical weaning decisions a rancher or farmer 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. More than three-quarters of producers reported weaning calves between 5½ and 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 as possible. This should be when lactation declines and calf gain begins to decrease. Diets for weaned calves can be purchased or farm produced, such as dry hay, haylage or baleage. The best option is obviously to produce your own stored forages; that way, all your cattle will get a constant diet throughout the year. We produce dry round bales and small square bales from fields that are planted with the same forages that our cattle graze on in our rotational paddocks during the grazing months 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, be sure to keep the pens dust-free! This time of the year is when pastured pigs are most susceptible to pneumonia, and dust from shavings or even dry feed could instigate pneumonia. We add water to our pig rations to make a "mash" of their corn and oat chop so it has a thick, oatmeal-like consistency -- not slop!
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 your neighbors or weekend house guests. To minimize bawling -- unless "fence-line weaning" -- separate the calves from the cows so they can't hear each other. A good start would be to keep them out of sight --either over the hill (if you have any) or on the other side of the barn. 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 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 momma to strictly grass/hay/pasture) requires the growth of different organisms in the rumen to digest the forage. This change can take up to two weeks. This is obviously only for producers who 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 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.
Why is stress the most important challenge to overcome when weaning calves? Because 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 a vaccine. 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.
There are two major groups of vaccines that should be considered to assist weaning: those for clostridial diseases and those for BRD. If you're unsure which vaccine to use, contact your veterinarian.
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 postweaning calf health management and marketing management. It's worthwhile to explore the various weaning programs and regimes available.
· One concept that's been getting a lot of attention is fence-line weaning, which allows cows and calves to have several days of fence-line 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 heifer/cow.
· Early weaning is a management practice sometimes used during drought conditions like what the Southwest has been experiencing this season, 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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