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Creating a successful weaning program

Cara Pantone for Progressive Cattleman Published on 15 August 2018
spring processing of cattle

Weaning season is a critical time of the year as cattle producers prepare calves for the next stage of production. Through proper weaning practices, large- and small-scale producers can maximize the performance and value of their calves, whether as stockers, feeders or replacement heifers.

Jason Banta, assistant professor and extension beef specialist at Texas A&M University, emphasizes that producers can reduce any illness or stress on calves during the weaning process by planning ahead.

“When we’re talking about stocker calves or feeder calves, we’re looking to increase the value of those calves because a weaned calf, when we go to sell it, has considerably more value than an unweaned calf,” says Banta. “We’re just trying to get them to perform well at the next step.”

Purina Animal Health Beef Research Manager Chris Focherior, in a June press release, said operations can avoid three common pitfalls: not having a plan for the weaning process, not having proper weaning facilities and not maximizing the feed intake of newly weaned calves.

Have a plan

Purina encourages producers to develop a flexible plan at least a month in advance. Missouri State University Beef Specialist Phillip Lancaster adds that cattle producers should allow themselves up to several months of planning time before weaning.

“Everything needs to be in place before calves are weaned,” Lancaster says. “Decide how you are going to wean – total separation, fenceline or the two-stage method. … Think through the advantages and disadvantages of each method well in advance to decide which will work best for you.”

Banta refers to corral weaning as being the second-best choice for producers, where ideally cows are placed in a corral or feedlot area with the calves remaining independently in surrounding pasture. However, Banta strongly promotes fenceline weaning as his recommended method of weaning, with cows and calves in adjacent pastures for about five to seven days.

“By them being able to see each other and hear each other and smell each other, that greatly reduces the stress on those calves, as well as stress on those cows,” Banta says.

Once producers choose a method, Banta says to sort cows and calves with attention to keeping calf stress levels as low as possible.

“Ideally, you’ll only sort on weaning day, and you’ll do that as quietly and calmly as possible,” Banta says. “You’re already doing something the calves aren’t used to when you sort and wean them, and you don’t want to spend the whole day doing something they aren’t used to and elevating that stress level.”

To avoid additional stress on weaning day, Lancaster says determine the vaccination protocol several weeks in advance.

“Sick calves cost money,” Lancaster says. “Vaccinating calves several weeks prior to weaning will improve immune response and reduce morbidity in weaned calves. A good animal health program is worth the cost.”

Banta adds that the second round of vaccines should be administered to calves one to two weeks after weaning, depending on the operation and plans of the producer.

Prepare proper facilities

Banta is quick to inform producers that proper facilities for weaning do not mean perfect facilities, especially when it comes to fenceline weaning. While both Lancaster and Banta suggest that producers repair and fortify fences and facilities when needed, the main concern of producers should be whether or not food and water is readily accessible to calves.

“A lot of people are hesitant to try fenceline weaning because they think they don’t have a good enough fence to do it,” Banta says. “But you don’t have to have the best fence in the world. One thing producers can do if their fence is marginal and they want more insurance when separating calves and cows is to line one side with one wire of electric fence, preferably on the cows’ side.”

With fenceline weaning, Banta says calves should ideally be in a pasture ranging from about 5 to 20 acres that allows shade, quality forage and easy access to water. Banta says shade will be more or less important depending on location and time of year, but producers should utilize shade for calves if possible.

Lancaster also emphasizes preparing your calves for feedbunks and water sources, as well as putting both in convenient places where calves can find them.

“Water is more important than feed,” Lancaster says. “Calves won’t eat if they don’t have water. Use a water tank that has open water on top, especially if your calves have never seen an automatic waterer before, and let the water run when you first put the water in the pen (or pasture if possible) so they can hear it. They will find it much quicker.”

Lancaster suggests to put feedbunks perpendicular to the fence so calves will more easily find feed and begin the vital process of moving to new food sources.

Maximizing feed intake

Forcherio says, “The end goal is to drive intake and get calves eating the nutrients they need to stay healthy. Anything you can do to set calves up to eat at target intake levels will help them have a higher chance of success.”

As weaned calves transition off their mothers to feed, it is of the utmost importance to help them make that transition smoothly and efficiently.

“Some people like to try grain or a self-fed feeder,” Banta says. “The challenge is if we don’t get that done 100 percent correctly, we can cause some digestive problems in those calves, so the nice thing with pasture is that we don’t have to worry about that.”

Lancaster and Banta both say introduce feed and supplements slowly to calves and expose calves to feedbunks prior to weaning. Banta says ideally he would feed pairs together four or five times so weaned calves will know what a feedbunk is and will move on to feed and supplements easier.

“Gradually increase feed supplements,” Banta says. “Don’t feed too much right away. One feed type I really like is soybean meal or cotton meal, and what makes them unique is they are very high in protein and low in carbohydrates, which is safer for the rumen.”

Lancaster likewise encourages highly palatable feeds, such as feeds that contain dried distillers grains and cottonseed hulls, to increase intake.

Lastly, Lancaster says to avoid waterers and feeders that are too high for calves and to ensure all calves will be sufficiently nourished.

“Make sure you have enough bunk space for all the calves to eat at once,” Lancaster says. “Especially if you are feeding a small amount of feed in the bunk with free-choice hay in a bale ring.”  end mark

PHOTO: Early spring processing is a good time to test fenceline weaning techniques. Photo by David Cooper.