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Midwest/North: Tips for weaning time

Travis Meteer for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 August 2021

Reducing stress at weaning is one of the biggest opportunities to improve your cattle business. No matter what system you choose, paying attention to potential stressors can help improve the welfare, health and gains of cattle.

Creep feeding – Economics don’t favor creep feeding this year; however, creep feeding for two to three weeks prior to weaning will help provide a smooth transition at weaning. Providing creep will increase the familiarity of feed. Using a similar diet for creep and post-weaning rations helps ensure good intakes at weaning. Good intake is the foundation to healthy calves, as proper nutrition will support immune system responses.

Castration and vaccination before weaning is a good practice. Castration at birth may be an option if you do not plan to retain bull calves. Letting calves handle these stressors while still having their mother at their side will lessen stress significantly.

Fenceline weaning – Research has shown calves that are fenceline weaned eat more, rest more and vocalize less than calves separated and weaned in a drylot. They also gained more in the weeks post-weaning and still had an advantage after 10 weeks. Familiarity with the environment (pasture), feed (grass and creep) and sight of their mothers all help reduce stressors. Fences need to be equipped to keep the separation.

Two-step weaning – Consider using plastic nose flaps that inhibit the calf from nursing on her mother but still allow full physical exposure to her. Keep in mind, this system requires two trips through the chute to insert and take out the weaning device. Research at the University of Illinois showed behavioral benefits, including less bawling and higher intakes at weaning.

Avoid dusty or muddy pens as a location for weaning. Dust can be a large irritant to eyes and lungs, which could result in more pinkeye and respiratory issues. Mud can increase maintenance requirements and decrease performance.

Ensure water is familiar and placed along a fenceline. Water is the most important nutrient. Flaps or balls in waterers can result in poor water consumption.

Feed a nutrient-dense diet at weaning. Intake will be lower at weaning, thus, making sure calves are getting adequate nutrition will demand a nutrient-dense feed. At weaning, avoid any filler feeds that lower nutrient density or could be sorted by more aggressive animals, skewing the diet for more timid calves.

Avoid drastic changes in diets. If calves have only consumed pasture and milk, a heavy concentration of grains is not best. The ruminant stomach is sensitive to pH changes that occur in rapid, extreme shifts from grass (fiber) to grains (starch). Using fiber-based co-product feeds and a balancing mineral supplement are better in this scenario. end mark

Travis Meteer
  • Travis Meteer

  • Beef Extension Specialist
  • University of Illinois
  • Email Travis Meteer