Early weaning: Water, proper feed, interaction all matter | TSLN.com

Early weaning: Water, proper feed, interaction all matter

By Heather Smith Thomas for Tri-State Livestock News

On a dry year like this one some people are weaning calves earlier than usual, to stretch forage resources.

Warren Rusche, Assistant Professor/Extension Specialist-Feedlot Management, Animal Science, SDSU Extension, says that early weaning could mean anything less than 180 days (6 months). “We can wean calves at 90 to 100 days of age but most people want to wait until they are 4.5 to 5 months old. By that age they can handle forage and also benefit from concentrates. They can grow and gain very efficiently,” he says.

“Earlier weaning is a good drought management strategy. When I was working on my own family’s operation, our ideal time to wean calves was at about 5 months, partly because we could beat the winter weather,” says Rusche.


Water is just as important as access to feed, he says. “If they don’t drink they don’t eat, and if they don’t eat, they don’t gain, and they may also get sick,” he explains. If they came from big pastures with natural water sources or stock tanks, they may not recognize a water fountain as a place to drink, if that’s what you have in your weaning pen.

“One recommendation is to let the water run over a little so calves can determine where the water is, but I don’t like to create any mud in the pen. There are also other ways to get calves coming to water. A nutritionist for one of the feed companies in this area told me about an innovative idea one producer was using. He bought a little solar-powered bird bath pump via Amazon and stuck that in the water tank. It bubbled the water up, without overflowing the tank.” The calves could hear the water, and it wasn’t creating an additional problem (mud) and it was cheap.

“Sometimes it helps to simply put out additional water tanks, so calves can see the open water. Our family did a lot of custom backgrounding, and at one time we had a group of calves that wasn’t doing well. I pulled them in to treat them but they weren’t responding. I wasn’t smart enough to figure out what was going on with them until I went out early one morning and noticed them licking frost off the gate! They were thirsty and didn’t know what a waterer was. So I got a rubber tub and dumped buckets of water in it and they immediately realized there was water. Make sure they understand where the water is; that’s more important than anything else when you wean,” says Rusche.

From a nutritional standpoint, grass hay alone is not enough for young calves, since they don’t eat very much. You need something more nutrient-dense. “As a rough rule of thumb, most people feed something that’s about 50% concentrate, after the first couple days on long-stem hay to get them eating something they are familiar with. Long-stem hay stimulates saliva production and rumination, which is good if they’ve had stress from gathering and/or hauling, or maybe haven’t seen a lot of groceries out on the range if it’s a dry year,” he explains.


“If calves have to be in a dry-lot, we need to look at pen design for the younger calves—things that might not be as crucial for bigger calves or yearlings. Make those pens small, so they can’t walk so much or create so much dust. They only need about 60 square feet per head. If it’s a fence-line system with bunks, you can be creative with bunks. Here in the Dakotas there are welding shops that make portable bunks you can move around with a loader. They are stout and can make a good back-fence to force those calves into a smaller area, and with that much bunk space it increases the chance that the calves will come across feed by accident,” he says. You don’t need to leave calves in a small area very long–just a week or so, as they transition.

“We are trying to manage two different issues during weaning: calf behavior and rumen development/rumen environment. We are usually trying to get calves to learn how to eat in a place that’s different from where they were, and adapt to life without mom—and often to adapt the rumen to something different from grass,” he says.

Calves can do well at first on good grass pasture because they will readily eat it. “We may not have to feed any concentrate, but after a few days might start them on a little, just to get them used to eating it. Rather than using a feeder I prefer to feed a little by hand, or some kind of delivered feed, so they get used to having someone bringing the feed,” he says.

“I don’t like providing feed in hay rings or creep feeders because you don’t know how much they are actually eating. Out on grass it might be ok, but in a starting yard I’d rather bunk feed them, because with a creep feeder we have no way of controlling intake, or knowing what they eat.” Some may be overeating and others not much at all.

“If we are feeding them twice daily in a bunk, we know which ones are coming to eat, and how aggressively they eat. If they are waiting for us in the morning, that tells us they are doing what they are supposed to and maybe it’s time to increase their feed. If they aren’t coming eagerly to the feed, we may have some issues,” says Rusche.

“At the feedlot here at Brookings we bring some calves in that were gathered off ranches and weaned on the truck. For the first few days we feed about 1% of body weight, then step them up to about 2% of body weight by day 7 and then about 2.5% by day 14. After that we let the calves tell us how much they should have, by their appetite,” he says.

“Personally I’d rather have calves a bit on the hungry side the first couple weeks, because they are more eager to see the guy with the feed bucket or the feed wagon, or feeding cake. They associate people with time to eat, which changes their behavior.”

Weaning strategy

Two low stress weaning options are nose flaps and fenceline weaning. Not everyone can run the calves through twice—to put flaps in and then take them out again later. Some people can do some form of fence-line weaning, which tends to be less stressful than cold-turkey weaning in a corral and taking the cows far away. Fence-line weaning can be done at pasture, or with calves in a corral and the cows outside the corral with a stout fence between them. The cow and calf can touch noses and know that the other is still there.

“On our family ranch we pen-weaned because we had cattle scattered on rented pastures, too far from home to wean on those places. The best way for us to wean was to bring them all home. Initially we had the cows stay out on pasture, which was about 300 yards away from the weaning pens that had feed and water and where the calves didn’t have to walk around a lot. That worked pretty well for the calves, but trying to drive the cows away from the calves didn’t work. They didn’t want to go, and ended up breaking through fences to come back to the calves,” says Rusche. It works better to leave the cows right outside the weaning pen for several days.

“This opened my eyes to the fact that fence-line weaning can work. If a ranch has some high-quality pasture saved for the calves, they make that transition very well.” The calves have good pasture (feed they are accustomed to eating) and the cows are right next to them, with a good fence between them.

Calf behavior

It’s good to have someone interact with those calves daily, to get them settled down and easy to handle. “It is important to walk among them, walk them up to the feed bunk, etc. The more we can do in terms of getting cattle used to people, the better. Then they don’t view us as predators to run away from.” It’s better to have them looking to the people for interaction, comfort and food.

It’s also easier to monitor them closely if you can walk through them and they are not spooky and wanting to run off. “Otherwise you won’t detect a sick one in time, if any of them are getting sick,” he says.

The more you can interact with calves, the quicker they settle down. He tells of an instance where the producer didn’t have time to do anything with them except take feed to them with a tractor in a 5-acre growing yard. He had them on feed for about 45 days, then sold them. When it was time to gather the calves, all they wanted to do was run. They weren’t used to seeing people and getting them in was stressful.

Vaccinating and marketing

Vaccinations are also important. Consult with your veterinarian regarding which vaccines are most likely to be helpful prior to weaning. “Most ranchers also know which shots the buyers want to have in those calves. There’s not much demand for calves that don’t have at least 45 days of preconditioning post-weaning. They either want them bawling (right off the cow) so they can manage them the way they want, or weaned for 45 days or more. If we ship them at 30 days, often all we’ve done is get them started on feed and now we throw them off feed, and they at the point where they are vulnerable to getting sick. If you are going to precondition calves, it’s important to devote enough time to do it correctly,” he says.

“After we’ve put resources in them for 40 to 60 days, they’ve started to make efficient gains that we will actually get paid for. Otherwise we’ve just worked hard and not really made any money! In some situations it might pay to find someone to partner with who can take those calves and precondition them for us, if we don’t have the proper feed and facilities to do it ourselves,” Rusche says.



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