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Successfully managing weaning season

Contributed by Chris Clark Published on 13 September 2017

The fall season includes many seasonal highlights like cooler weather, football, back-to-school and of course weaning those spring-born calves.

Management of the weaning period can have a huge impact on animal health, welfare, performance and profitability. Weaning involves many potential stressors that can negatively affect beef calves: separation from dam, new environment, diet change and new social dynamics, just to name a few. Minimizing the stress of weaning will give your calves greater opportunities to thrive, perform and reach their genetic potential.

So what can you do to minimize the stress of weaning?

Consider low-stress weaning strategies such as two-step weaning, fence-line weaning, pasture weaning, etc. Two-step weaning uses various types of nose flaps to prevent suckling while calves are still on the cow. After several days, nose flaps are removed and calves are separated from cows. Fence-line weaning involves penning cows and calves in adjacent lots or pastures, allowing fence-line contact. Pasture weaning allows weaned calves to continue grazing in a familiar environment after separation from dam. Be creative and do what works for your operation. Anything you can do to minimize the degree and abruptness of change can help calves acclimate and thrive.

Strive for excellence with all the basics of animal husbandry. Offer plenty of fresh, clean water and make sure the weaned calves know where to find it. Offer a well-balanced and palatable ration. Provide bedding, shade, shelter, windbreaks, fly control, dust control, etc., as appropriate. Years ago, I met a veterinarian who described his clinic motto as “Doing the ordinary things extraordinarily well.” This phrase is very applicable to cattle production. We can prevent many problems by doing the ordinary things extraordinarily well.

Vaccinate to establish immunity prior to the stress of weaning. Stress associated with weaning can cause immunosuppression, making animals more susceptible to respiratory disease and other infections. Pre-weaning vaccines help to ensure that protective antibodies are on board at weaning. Work closely with your veterinarian to determine the products and vaccine schedules that make the most sense for your operation. Perform castration and dehorning procedures as early as possible with appropriate anesthesia and analgesia to minimize pain and stress.

Feed them well. Balance rations carefully to meet nutritional requirements. Try to initially use feeds that cattle are familiar with and make ration changes gradually. Use careful bunk management and gradual transitions if using high starch feeds such as corn. Consider the use of nutrient dense, low starch feeds to make rations safer and easier to manage. Use natural protein rather than urea, and supplement vitamins and minerals appropriately. Work with advisers like nutritionists and extension specialists to help you with your feeding program.

With good management and attention to detail, weaning can be one of those enjoyable seasonal highlights just like fall colors, sweatshirt weather and cattle sales.  end mark

Chris Clark is an Iowa State University Extension beef specialist. This article originally appeared in the Iowa State University’s September 2017 Growing Beef enewsletter.