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Set your sights early for weaning calves

Heather Smith Thomas for Progressive Cattle Published on 25 April 2022
Calves that have been weaned

Sometimes weaning early can be beneficial, but for success you need to plan ahead and be set up to do it properly.

Dr. David Bohnert, beef extension specialist and ruminant nutritionist at Oregon State University, says many producers may be scrambling this year to have enough forage after last year’s drought across much of the West. Similar drought conditions are being seen this spring in the Southern Plains.

“If we get into summer and forage isn’t adequate, and cows are still in poor condition, this could be good reason to wean early. Otherwise, it will take more nutrients, at more cost, to get them back into adequate condition,” he says. After limited forage availability, many cows are thin this spring and won’t regain weight while lactating. Pregnancy rates could be lower this year. Early weaning could help them rebreed and get back into good condition before fall.

Dr. Ron Gill (associate department head for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension) says anything you can do to prepare those calves so they know how to eat feed will help. “Get them on some kind of complete ration quickly, especially if they are very young,” he says.

If you can feed the calves along with the cows for a week before you wean, the cows will teach them; calves will mimic the dam and eat what she’s eating. “Some people use creep feeders to get calves used to coming to a feeder. You don’t have to get them all eating and coming to feed, but if some do, the others can learn from them.”

Handling the calves

“If getting them used to feed ahead of time isn’t possible, and you have to just strip calves off the cows, take some time and get calves coming to the bunks or feeders,” Gill says. “The key is to put pressure on the calves away from the feeders, so they want to go to where the feeders are. It’s like reverse psychology. If you try to push them to the feeders, they don’t want to go there; they are focused on getting away from you.”

Calves weaned early are missing comfort and leadership from mom, and looking for someone to be in charge. “Sometimes we use a few yearlings to put with newly weaned calves to help settle them down and train them. This works, but those bigger cattle eat a lot of feed and are bossy and hard on calves. It’s worth doing, however, if none of the calves will go to the feed. Older animals can show them,” says Gill.

If calves are constantly walking and bawling, spend time in the pen with them to change their focus and get them calmed down and stopped. “This gives them something else to focus on – not so worried about the loss of mom. This can help them think about going to feed and water rather than just pacing and trying to get out,” Gill explains.

Pre-planning for weaning includes getting cattle into an area where you can ride or walk through them and get calves used to people before you wean. “Bigger ranches, with cattle scattered over huge areas, may not be able to do this, but if you can get calves used to people and horses, it won’t be such a scary thing for them. You can get them used to being managed a little and make the weaning period less stressful.”

Sorting cows from calves at weaning should be as calm and quiet as possible. “The people who do a good job with stockmanship have cattle that handle decently,” Gill says. It pays off in the long run, with less stress and sickness.


Feeding calves

Make sure whatever ration you feed is close to a complete ration and very palatable. “Sometimes commodity rations are balanced but not palatable. Starting out, you must have something they’ll want to eat,” Gill says.

He recommends mixing your own ration. “Cows will eat a lot of things, but some novel feeds will put calves off feed – and you sure don’t want that starting out. I suggest buying either a commercially prepared starter ration or have someone knowledgeable work up the ration,” he says.

Sometimes commodity feeds have an off flavor or odor. If it smells different from anything they’ve ever eaten, calves may not eat it. “Pellets containing molasses may encourage consumption. Here in Texas, we use a lot of cottonseed hulls; they don’t have much nutritional value, but cattle love them. These can be useful to help get them started eating feed,” says Gill.

Find what’s available regionally that might work for young calves. “Most local feed companies will know, and even larger companies have something that will fit regionally, but you need to find something calves will readily eat. Some people top-dress feed with dry molasses to try to attract them to eat.”

It’s important to reduce dustiness in the feed. Some kind of oil or moisture in the ration can help. You don’t want calves breathing dust, since this can lead to respiratory irritation and disease. For the same reason, you don’t want weaning pens to be dusty.


Dr. Jason Ahola, beef production systems, Colorado State University, recommends working with your veterinarian. “If you are weaning early, you may need to vaccinate calves earlier than you generally do, and branding-age shots are more critical,” he says.

“When we bring calves in to brand, there may be some that are just a week or two old – too young to respond and gain immunity. You might need to vaccinate again a bit later, just before you wean. Otherwise, you may have some calves that don’t have much immunity and, if you abruptly wean them, they may get sick,” he explains.

Work with your veterinarian to get a vaccination protocol figured out, and plan for any treatments. “If suddenly 20 of them break with respiratory disease, pinkeye or some other problem, you’ll be calling the vet. Figure out ahead of time the most likely health issues, and have a plan for treatment and what to treat with, and have that medication on hand,” says Ahola.


A small pasture is usually better than a drylot. One way to control dust if calves must be in a dry pen is to keep them closer confined. “Feedlots often do this; if it gets too dry and dusty, they put more cattle in the pen,” Gill says. The manure and urine adds moisture to settle the dust.

“The downside is: If you get a pathogen going through a group, it spreads quicker if they are closely confined. Calves usually do better in pastures, with more room, if you can control fence-walking and bawling. If you have to put them in a drylot, get them back out as soon as possible. I like to have them back on grass within a week.”

By then, they are over the main stress of weaning and are eating feed, and continue to come to feedbunks when they are out on pasture again. “Some people can’t put them on pasture; it depends on their facilities. It’s worth the investment to have at least one paddock you can turn calves back in to,” says Gill. Even a not-so-good fence will hold calves if augmented with a hot wire.

Bohnert says you need the infrastructure to feed them and get at least 1.5 to 2 pounds per day gain. “Not everyone is set up to do this. To take advantage of early weaned calves, you must be able to put 30 to 45 days into them to get them vaccinated and get the bawl out of them. You want them healthy enough and well along in their transition, so they’ll do well for the next owner,” he says. Then their marketability goes up because they are not considered high-risk.   end mark

PHOTO 1: A group of young calves in Oregon are brought home off dry rangeland early to wean, and their mothers went back to the range for the rest of the summer. Photo provided by David Bohnert.

PHOTO 2: Be sure when using byproduct feeds that they entice starting calves to eat by not having heavy odors or tastes. Photo provided by Ron Gill.

Heather Thomas is a freelance writer based in Idaho.