Winning During Weaning

Published on Thu, 06/28/2018 - 3:33pm

Winning During Weaning

 By Aly McClure

  "Effective weaning techniques will keep the cattleman producing as many calves as possible while retaining the overall health of his herd.”

  Raising cattle is full of it’s own joys, triumphs, tragedy’s, and all together difficult moments. But, like other things, what separates the “men from the boys” in rearing great calves is the way we handle the ever changing circumstances. Thankfully, one of the more difficult ones, weaning, only takes place once per year, twice for some. While weaning is an essential task for cattle producers, it can be a tedious one. Balling cows and calves, escapes trying to locate each other, and making sure everyone is continuing to eat and drink can be a full-time job for a couple of weeks. But, thankfully, they all do eventually calm down and cope.

 As you plan for your up coming weaning here are some thoughts and tips to make it as smooth as a transition period as it can be.

Transitioning Into Weaning
 When you wean your calves is just as important as how you when your calves, there are many nuances to keep in mind. As a cattle producer, our job is to grow as many viable calves as possible. One of the ways we ensure this is through the weaning process. Pulling the calf off of the cow at the ideal time allows her body to gain condition, preferably before she falls below a 3.0, back and focus on her newest pregnancy and the changing seasons. It is important to have both animals primed for winter well before it begins. Modified from: Pruitt and Momont, Cattle 87-9, “Effects of Body Condition On Reproductive Performance of Range Beef Cows” and from Virginia Cooperative Extension, 400-795, Body Condition Scoring Beef Cows.

 When you actually wean your calves is dependent on when your herd calves. Calves are weaned between seven and eight months of age. So if you have a late winter, early spring calving herd this would be June-July, and if you have a late summer early fall calving herd this would be February-March. During years of extreme weather patterns such as drought, there is an exception to earlier wean times, but overall you want your calves on the cows as long as possible before the cow condition falls to drastically. The calves need the nutritious benefits of their mama’s milk for at least the 7 month period.

 Calves weaned at a relatively young age (5 months and earlier) can experience many set backs in their overall growth and health. If you are faced with this type of situation it is imperative that you supply milk supplementation to the calves until at least six months of age. This should only be considered during severe drought or herd feed shortages.

 While there are many methods and ideas when it comes to how you separate your cows and calves, most of it has to do with your operation and what you have available to facilitate the process. It should be noted that the least stressful option, for the cattle, that you can allow is best for everyone.

 If you plan to start your calves on feed right away, placing them in a corral far enough away that they are unable to hear the cows balling can be an ideal situation. It takes the calves off milk and pasture immediately and their only nutrient options being full feed or hay and water. Depending on your overall herd goals, this can be the most stressful option as well, due to immediately and aggressively changing the calves environment. Because of the aggressive nature of this option, it is also likely that you will deal with more cows escaping to search for their calves. One way to cut back on calf stress in this situation is by placing dry cows with the calves. They will be comforted by the cows presence but unable to nurse.

 Cows, like humans, will search for their babies in the last place that they knew they were. One way to play on this instinct and minimize your cow escape situation is to separate cows and calves in their current pasture, remove the cows to another place then remove the calves to wherever you will be weaning them. Once the calves have been removed, bring the cows back to the original pasture. They will search for their missing babies within this space.

 A method that can have reduced separation stress is when you separate the cows and calves in the same area divided by a strong fence. They can still see and communicate with each other but are forced to dine separately. The downfall is calves are flexible creatures and can crawl through small and low places, so you may be separating more than once.

 Nose plates are another great low stress option. By applying the nose plates on calves while in the pasture the cows will wean the calves from milk themselves. No one likes to be poked. The calves will be forced to feed on grass, water, and any other supplements you provide while still being in the comforting presence of their mother. 

 For a young calf and a pregnant cow, the least amount of stress induced is always better. 

 You should preform castration, branding, and initial vaccinations well before weaning at 2-3 months of age to minimize stress at the time of the event.

 Overall the weaning process should last seven to fourteen days. By applying effective weaning techniques and preforming them during the ideal times, a cattle producer only increases his odds of producing more high-quality calves and preserving the health of his entire herd. Which is the goal in the end anyway, right?