Weaning Beef Calves

Weaning is a stressful time for suckled calves particularly for those born in the springtime. These calves are weaned younger than autumn born calves at a time when feed supplies and weather conditions are deteriorating. Steps taken to improve calf welfare at weaning will also improve the lifetime performance of the animal and boost profitability. It is important to see things from the calf’s perspective and try and reduce the level of stress. Weaning is the removal of a suckling calf from the cow. Beef cattle producers have a variety of options when it comes to deciding when to wean their calves. Because the time of weaning impacts both animal performance and operational profitability, it is important to know the potential results of choosing time of weaning strategies.


Stressors and reducing stress

There are stressors and impacts associated with weaning both for the calf and the cow and the choice of when to separate them. Weaning can also be stressful for the owner of the animals. As animal managers, farmers should try and make weaning as stress-free as it can while keeping productivity and profitability in line with farmer`s goals.

There are many considerations for weaning, including time of weaning, preparation for weaning, method of weaning, and post-weaning management. Different strategies of weaning affect performance of the calf (market weight, health, etc.) and the cow (reproductive efficiency, cull weights, health, etc.) and therefore can affect profitability.

The main stressors include

  • transport or travel from field
  • treatment at handling pens
  • change of environment (field to pen)
  • mixing with calves from other groups
  • loss of contact with dam
  • change of diet
  • unfamiliar feeds
  • poorly ventilated buildings
  • exposure to disease from other animals.

The presence of cows has a calming effect and the prolonged presence of cows is one way of reducing stress in suckled calves that are being weaned. The easiest method is to wean most of the calves at housing but leave a few fitter cows that can afford to lose some body condition in with the calves for a week or so after weaning. When there is plenty of shed space available, all the calves can be left with the cows at weaning. A creep area can be created for the calves in which they are shut into for an increasing period of time over a two week period. The calves will then gradually wean themselves.

When is it time to wean calves?

The major priority in beef production is to produce as many calves as possible. The main objective of weaning is therefore to enable a cow to calve every year by allowing her to regain condition after weaning. Calves are ideally weaned when they are 7 to 8 months old. The right time to wean a calf depends on the condition of the cow and not the age of the calf. During years of drought and poor feed supply calves should be weaned early (about 6 months) to allow the cow to recover before the onset of winter. It is important that the cow should recover and that the secretory tissue be restored before the next calf is born.

Early weaning

  • This practice should only be considered during times of severe drought or feed shortages.
  • Calves weaned at a relatively young age (less than 5 months) experience severe setbacks.
  • If the condition of the cow deteriorates considerably before the planned weaning time, the producer must decide whether to
    • wean early and supply concentrate feeding to the calf
    • provide a roughage supplement to the cows that are still suckling their calves.
  • This decision will depend on the availability and cost of feed. Generally, the feed (mainly concentrates) costs to rear early-weaned calves are relatively high. Therefore, feeding concentrates to calves should only be considered during adverse conditions.

The magnitude of shortage and extent of other management changes required dictates when calves should be weaned in order to balance forage supply and forage demand. When calves are weaned early to improve reproductive performance, they may be weaned just prior to the breeding season to impact reproduction in the breeding season that immediately follows. Or they may be weaned 30 to 90 days earlier than normal in attempt to reduce the postpartum interval (period beginning immediately after birth of a calf) during the breeding season that follows 6 to 8 months later.

Time of weaning can be altered to manipulate cow body condition to maintain high reproductive rates and reduce winter feed requirements. Often when a cow is declining in body condition the calf is not growing at optimum. Changing either the calving date and (or) the weaning date will have an influence on cow condition. Age of the calf at weaning is affected by both the date of birth and the date of weaning. Any change in time of weaning must balance the potential positive impacts on the cows with potential negative impacts on the calves or calf market weights.

Preparation for Weaning

Preparing calves well in advance to actual weaning time has benefits well worth the effort. Because immune function and response is lower in times of stress, and weaning can be stressful, many veterinarians suggest that vaccinations be given 3-4 weeks prior to weaning and that de-worming be done after weaning. This not only lessens the stress at weaning, but also improves immune response to the vaccines and anthelmintics. Other management procedures, such as branding, castrating, and de-horning should be done well in advance of weaning.

Also it is a good idea to make sure that before weaning calves are used to eating the intended post-weaning diet. You can feed that diet to both cows and calves for a short period of time about two-weeks or provide it in a creep feeder – narrow passages into a feeding area are set up so the calves creep in but larger cows cannot. Although creep feeding can be used to acclimate calves to a post-weaning diet, it’s primarily use is to provide supplemental feed to nursing calves in order to increase weaning weight. It is of benefit to calves, but not a direct benefit to cows.

Make sure that the post-weaning diet is appropriate for the age of calf including forage quantity and quality and contains a vitamin/mineral mix and plenty of fresh accessible water. For the very young calf, this means a special calf starter diet either bagged or specially formulated feed. For older calves, good quality forage (fall pasture re-growth irrigated summer pasture or very good quality hay) will suffice depending on target performance. Make sure they can safely reach water and know how to drink it. If the calves are unfamiliar with drinking water from a trough let the water over-flow a bit so that it makes a trickling sound. Work with a nutrition consultant or veterinarian to provide a vitamin/mineral mix.

Post-weaning Management

Preconditioning is a nutrition and health management practice that prepares calves as stocker/feeder cattle in the next phase of production. If you cannot provide this preconditioning period, make sure newly weaned calves are rested, fed, and watered before shipping.

Calves can be weaned successfully as early as 2 months of age. However this requires intensive calf management and is not practical under most ranch conditions. At 2 months of age calves are still functionally pre-ruminants that rely primarily on milk for their nutrient supplies and consume only small quantities of forage. However they do not require milk replacers and can eat dry feed at around 40 days of age. By 3 to 4 months of age calves generally consume significant amounts of forage. Waiting until calves are 4 to 5 months old is usually preferable to earlier time frames for weaning. A well-recognized weaning target in many operations is 205 days (7 months) of age. Weaning weights typically are adjusted to 205 days of age in cattle performance testing and evaluation programs to compare calf pre-weaning growth performance adjusted to a common endpoint. Many breed associations have defined weaning age windows for calves to be eligible to have adjusted weaning weight calculated and recorded with the breed association. It is important to keep up with current weaning age guidelines if participating in breed association registries and record programs.

Methods of weaning

Circumstances on the farm determine the method of weaning. The following methods can be used:

  • Keep the calves in a kraal or well-fenced camp and remove the cows to a distant camp preferably out of earshot of the calves.
  • Remove the cows temporarily from a camp and in their absence move the calves to another distant camp. Cows tend to look for their calves in the camp in which they were last seen and this method should prevent the cows from breaking out of the camp.
  • Exchange calves from two different herds. The calves will then have the company of cows. Some cross-suckling is however likely to occur.
  • Separate the cows and calves by a strong close-strand wire fence. This method can reduce weaning stress.
  • Nose plates, commercially available or home-made, can be fitted to calves for 7 to 14 days. These prevent suckling even if cows and calves remain together throughout the weaning period. When the nose plates are removed the cows and calves are separated but with relatively little stress.