Weaning is key to healthy calves
September 9, 2015
As fall is rapidly approaching weaning time is getting closer for many spring-born calves. The beef industry has made great improvements in so many ways to improve efficiency of productions, however we still experience considerable losses in transitioning calves from the cow on range to the next step in production. Data on morbidity as cattle enter the feedlot has not improved in spite of all the new vaccines and drugs available plus advances in nutrition and weaning management.
I realize much is written each fall on proper weaning management and I certainly don't have any magic answers to totally avoid shrink or loss at weaning.
In my observations the loses occur when calves are weaned abruptly from the cow in the fall, shipped and comingled with other cattle in confinement. In many cases this may be the best alternative however it should be no surprise when completely healthy calves get sick especially in times of high temperature fluctuation which leads to considerable loss of performance, sickness and death. It also is a time where ownership often changes hands and some will say it is not my problem but it is still a loss to the industry and everyone pays.
Feedlots have a great record keeping system and in large lots they can track sources. There is certainly more price differential today and there will always be a market for "bloomy" freshly weaned calves. The basic question is, "is there enough premium for preconditioned calves to pay the producer for their labor and expense." Unfortunately in many cases I cannot argue there is enough premium paid partially because of the often misrepresented calves.
I feel the optimal is to wean the calves "at home" or in the environment they are in when on the cow. It is also best to not comingle with large numbers from various sources. Most ranchers have excellent results by weaning on high quality grazed forages such as meadow re-growth, winter annuals or in non-confinement conditions of some sort. I realize in these situations if sickness does occur it is more of a problem treating a calf versus if they were in confinement.
If I could have the best case scenario, I would prefer to bring the pairs into a high quality pasture and hold them there for at least a week so the calves could learn where the water was located. I would fence line wean the calves and would move the cows out of the pasture but just across a good calf tight fence. There is research data from University of California plus tons of experience that says weaning in this manner is relatively low stress. I would prefer to have some method to feed the calves some supplemental feed especially if they are destined to confined feeding sometime soon. My preference would be to use bunks and some highly palatable feed such as distillers grains (wet or dry) but calves fed on the ground or lick tubs are alternatives. I would start feeding to both the cows and calves before separation to get the calves started on the supplement. Some prefer to use creep feeders for a short time, perhaps 30 days before weaning and that does aid in diminishing nutritional stress.
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I realize that ideal conditions don't usually exist but I can say several ranchers are currently weaning in this manner. I often hear "we only treat an occasional calf if any."
Data in California indicates that calves that were totally separated from the cows at weaning were 26 pounds lighter 14 days after weaning when compared to those that were fence line weaned plus they had not caught up at 10 weeks after weaning – still 23 pounds lighter.
In this 3-year study sickness was not a big problem in any of the calves. I can't imagine the magnitude of the difference if a 30 – 50 percent morbidity rate is assumed in the hard weaned calves.
I guess the bottom line is if there is a better or more economical way to wean then it may be a good time to start looking and considering alternatives. Perhaps it may require some additional fencing, water development, some changes in grazing or haying operation or perhaps consider seeding some cocktail forages in future years in order to make changes from the hard weaning into a confined situation. Some changes may be easily justified when considering the value of calves today.
Ivan G. Rush is a Professor Emeritus with the University of Nebraska