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Prepare for health issues in the weaning stage

Kindra Gordon Published on 01 September 2011
Farmers out standing in their field with black cattle

Weaning time brings cattle producers one step closer to their paycheck for that calf crop – so they know how important it is to ensure calf health.

Most producers agree that weaning success isn’t about fancy techniques; it’s simply about doing the basic management strategies right.

Nate Frederickson, who raises registered Angus and Hereford cattle near St. Onge, South Dakota, describes his approach to weaning as a three-legged stool encompassing a proper vaccination program, appropriate nutrition and low-stress cattle handling.

“These are pretty standard practices, but they work well. If you don’t have one of the components or legs, that stool will not stand and the weaning program could fail,” he says.

Frederickson, who also works as a sales representative for Novartis Animal Health, has had ample opportunity to see the value of vaccine programs.

He recommends two rounds of shots – one at preconditioning and the other at, or shortly after, weaning. Frederickson says, “Veterinarians differ on opinions whether it’s better to vaccinate at weaning or 14 days later.

As long as calves have had preconditioning shots, either time works.”

Frederickson recommends producers vaccinate with a standard five-way viral vaccine combined with a seven-way pasteurella and H. Somnus.

But he adds, “Operations can differ, so I highly recommend producers work closely with their veterinarian for a tailored weaning vaccination program.”

With regard to nutrition for newly weaned calves, Frederickson puts emphasis on a mineral program, but notes there can be some flexibility in the feedstuffs selected to fit your gain goals.

“Depending on the gain a producer wants for calves will dictate the nutritional needs – from hay or grass to a complete pellet,” he says.

Last but not least, Frederickson always makes sure to keep stress on his newly weaned calves minimal.

This includes providing weaned calves a clean pen or large paddock with grass and adequate fences combined with easy access to fresh water and feed. He concludes, “A little TLC can go a long way when it comes to weaning.”

Cattle handling and nutrition

Eureka, Kansas, Angus breeder Matt Perrier takes a similar approach to weaning, with emphasis on calf health, nutrition and low-stress handling. Perrier and his father, Tom, own and operate Dalebanks Angus Ranch.

Perrier tells that for decades they got along fine with a traditional weaning program, but in the late ’90s they began fighting a lot of calf health issues.

The addition of low-stress handling, fenceline weaning and some nutritional supplements has helped them combat those issues.

Of the low-stress cattle handling, Perrier says, “This has to start long before weaning, but it enables us to do things with calves and cows that we never thought possible.

When pairs can be gathered at a walk, sorted, then quietly driven across a pasture without immediately circling back to see who they were just separated from, successful weaning is much easier to achieve.”

Along with that, the Perriers are believers in fenceline weaning. Perrier says, “We wean all calves with this method now, using a variety of pastures.

Our weaning groups vary between 60 and 125 pairs, and we have seen no variation based on head count.”

Perrier admits the success of fenceline weaning is all about the fence – but they’ve resolved that issue using one or two strands of electric fence that allows them to fenceline wean with poor or no permanent fence at all.

He explains, “We use poly tape or braided cable for ease of use, then just hook a small battery-operated or solar-powered charger to it. This will make nearly any pasture well-suited for the fenceline weaning protocol.”

Perrier’s third weaning tip is to mitigate the effects of coccidiosis. He says, “When we were battling weaning-related health issues, we continued to add more and more vaccines to our regimen, only to be faced with health issues at new points throughout the weaning process.

We then detected some clinical signs of coccidiosis. While we haven’t perfected the delivery mechanism yet, we try to get either an ionophore or amprolium into the calves’ diet beginning at least a week prior to weaning and continuing for three weeks following weaning.

When we are able to keep coccidia from stressing the calves’ digestive and immune systems, the secondary infections of BRD are minimized.”

Frederickson and Perrier agree that the extra efforts – and investments – to make sure weaning goes smoothly adds up to healthy calves that go on to perform and produce a profit.  end_mark

Consider BCS at weaning time

While weaning decisions mostly focus on the calf, Jason Ahola, a Colorado State University associate professor of Beef Production Systems, reminds producers that cow body condition score should also be a factor that helps determine the appropriate weaning time.

Ahola says, “Often, because we like the look of growing calves so much, the majority of beef cattle producers (53 percent) decide when to wean their calves primarily based on calf weight or age. Interestingly, according to USDA survey data, only 7 percent of producers consider cow body condition score as the primary factor to determine weaning time.”

He continues, “I’ll be the first to admit it – it’s not very appealing to look at young, small and lightweight calves, never mind weaning them like that. We all love to see big, heavy calves at weaning time.

But numerous studies have demonstrated that weaning calves early can be an effective tool to help improve reproduction and forage availability by reducing nutrient requirements of the cows.”

Ahola explains that a typical beef cow requires about 10 megacalories of energy per day to maintain her body tissues.

When she is lactating, the same cow requires approximately 3 to 6 additional megacalories per day, depending on how many days she has been lactating.

When a calf is weaned earlier than normal, the cow’s overall nutritional requirements are reduced when her lactation stops.

Non-lactating cows require about 20 to 35 percent fewer nutrients than lactating ones. Ultimately, fewer nutrients required per cow means more feed to go around for other more appropriate uses.

Among researchers, it is generally agreed that weaning early can offer these advantages:

  • Cows are able to improve their body condition score prior to winter feeding
  • Reproductive performance can improve (as seen by more cows pregnant during the season and/or more cows pregnant earlier in the season) due to reduced nutritional demand and improved body condition scores
  • Greater forage availability for cows or other livestock, including reduced demand on pastures
  • Improved calf performance in drought situations, sometimes including more desirable carcass characteristics

Early weaning options

Typically, beef calves are weaned at about 6 or 7 months old. However, researchers have reported that calves can be successfully weaned as young as 1½ to 2 months old.

Ahola explains that calves weaned prior to or during the breeding season (at 2 to 3 months old) can have immediate effects on reproductive performance in that same year’s breeding season, including changes to conception rate and length of postpartum interval.

However, if calves are weaned one to three months earlier than normal, reproductive performance can only be affected in the next year’s breeding season (due to elevated body condition scores at the end of the upcoming winter).

Ahola admits early weaning does have its downfalls compared to traditional weaning. For instance, in the short term, income will likely be reduced if calves are sold at a significantly lighter weight.

But, he adds, “It should be noted that lighter calves commonly sell for a higher price per pound, and calf prices also tend to be higher in late summer vs. fall.

And when viewed over the long term, more future calves will likely be born earlier in the calving season – assuming cows are in better condition and breed back sooner – and will be older and heavier at weaning time in subsequent years.”

Early weaning also requires an increased focus on management and calf nutrition, and possibly a need for improved animal facilities.

But particularly in drought situations or with young cows, Ahola suggests it may be a management option worth considering.

PHOTO

Matt Perrier and his father Tom endured their herd’s health issues in weaning season by implementing low-stress handling and nutritional supplements. photo courtesy of Matt Perrier

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