As fall is rapidly approaching, ranchers are taking the necessary steps to prepare for weaning.
By: Adele Harty, SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist
Each year it is critical that producers evaluate the current situation and make management decisions that will benefit the operation this year. Multiple factors both nationally and locally affect decisions related to weaning each year. The national indicators include environmental conditions, market changes, and expansion of the cowherd. On a local basis, grass/feed availability, pre-conditioning program, cow body condition, timing of weaning, weaning method, post-weaning management and marketing tools utilized are indicators that need to be considered.
Consider National Factors
Concerning national factors, being aware of and ready to make changes based on market and environmental signals is critical. The futures market has people questioning what is coming next. Having appropriate risk management tools in place is necessary. By utilizing the Beef Basis website, a producer can forecast their basis on feeder cattle at the local auction market on a certain day. This helps determine the price their cattle could sell for, if the futures market stays at the current price. This information can be useful in determining which risk management tool(s) would be useful in managing market risk.
Evaluate Your Local Situation
The local situation also needs constant evaluation. What body condition are the cows in? Have they started dropping condition, and if so, what is causing it? Is the grass in short supply or has the quality decreased significantly? What is the management plan for dealing with these changes? Weaning calves is the quickest and easiest way to remove the lactation requirements from the cow and decrease the grazing pressure on the land. A group of cows dropping in body condition should be one of the first indicators that weaning should be considered in the immediate future.
Within the production goals of the operation, will the calves be pre-conditioned? If so, what vaccines will be used? When will they be administered? How are the calves being marketed to ensure you receive a premium for adding the expense of pre-conditioning? Communicate with the buyers to know what is important to them and ensure that they are willing to “reward” you for your work. For most pre-conditioning programs, calves are vaccinated 3-4 weeks before weaning. This ensures that the calf’s immune system has had the opportunity to respond to the vaccine and that they will be protected when they become stressed.
What method of weaning will be used? There are three weaning methods commonly used. The first is sudden separation, where cows and calves are separated and moved to different locations, where they cannot hear each other vocalize. This is a method that is stressful on both the cows and the calves. The owners of the livestock are not exempt since the calves are typically kept in a drylot close to the house, which means they get to hear their constant bawling. Another method is fenceline weaning. This method removes the cows from the pasture and places them in an adjacent one with a very secure fence between both. This allows the cows and calves to have nose to nose as well as visual contact, but the calves can no longer nurse. For the first few days, the animals will stay close to the fence, but as time goes by they will begin moving farther away from the fence until they are completely weaned and not concerned about each other. Fenceline weaning is less stressful than abrupt weaning for both the animals as well as the owners. There is far less vocalization with this method than with sudden separation. The third method is to use the plastic nose tabs, which prevents the calves from nursing. The calves stay with the cows, but cannot nurse due to the nose flaps. This method has additional costs and labor in inserting and removing the tabs, but it is a viable, low-stress option.
When fitting a weaning plan to your operation’s goals, determine what the post-weaning program will be. Are you going to wean them onto the truck and not worry about them again? This method isn’t going to get the premium price because many buyers don’t want to purchase bawling calves due to the added labor on their end. Will you background the calves for a period of time? How long will that be? Ideally this period should be a minimum of 45 days to allow the calves adequate time to get over any potential illness caused by the stress of weaning, and get them eating a diet appropriate to their age and weight to ensure proper growth.
Weaning shouldn’t be something that is done on the same date, year after year because that’s the way it has always been done. The current national and local environment needs to be evaluated to determine how each operation can make minor changes to optimize the benefit to their business.