The Cow-Calf Manager
Livestock Update, September 2005
John B. Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, Virginia Tech
Weaning for Profit
Vaccinating calves prior to weaning and selling them in truckload lots in programs such as the Virginia Quality Assured Certified Feeder Calf program has resulted in increased value of $25-$35 per head. Producers that have been willing to vaccinate calves properly have been rewarded. However, in the past two years, the demand and premiums for calves that are also weaned and vaccinated has greatly increased. In most programs, calves need to be weaned 45 days.
In Virginia, the most common reason for not weaning calves is "I don't have a place to wean 'em". With most of Virginia cow-calf operations on large boundaries with limited facilities, this comment is certainly true. In addition, chasing cows or calves that have broken out of a pasture looking for each other is not an enjoyable pastime. Recently, research and demonstrations have focused on low-stress weaning that keeps cows and calves in the same proximity. This reduces stress on the calves as well as stress on the owner.
Fence-line weaning has been a topic of great discussion in the popular press. In addition, cow/calf operations in Virginia and Mid-Atlantic region are successfully using this technique. In this system, cows and calves are separated, but remain in adjacent pastures for 7 to 14 days. Separation is maintained by high tensile electric (preferred) or woven wire fence. After the fence-line weaning period cows and calves are completely separated out of sight of one another.
Research indicates that calves weaned in this method spend more time eating and resting and less time walking or bawling than traditionally weaned calves. The rate of gain of fence-line weaned calves is similar to non-weaned calves (Table 1.)
Table 1. Pounds gained in weeks relative to weaning by method
|Weeks after weaning
|Fence-line weaned (pasture)b
|Complete separation (pasture)
|Complete separation, used to hay (drylot)
|Complete separation, not used to hay (drylot)
In the study in Table 1, fence-line weaned calves kept up with their un-weaned counterparts early on, but slowed down late in weaning. In contrast, conventionally weaned calves performed poorly from the start. Even though, conventionally weaned calves started to catch up to the other groups by 70 days after weaning, they never did catch-up in terms of weight gain. This difference is important in short-term (45 to 60 day) weaning and background systems because there is insufficient time to regain reduced performance.
Obviously the worst option is to wean calves into a drylot with unfamiliar feed. In fence-line weaning, it is important that calves remain in a familiar pasture with a water source they use regularly. When initiating fence-line weaning, move cows and calves to a fresh pasture with plenty of forage for a few days before weaning. Then move cows to an adjacent pasture leaving the calves in the familiar pasture. Fence-line weaning is a good option for Virginia cattlemen.
In the last couple of years, producers and researchers have been interested if weaning could be achieved by calves remaining in the same pasture with their mothers, but suckling prevented by weaning rings. These rings (Figure 1) are inserted in the nose of calves for 3 to 14 days during which the calves shouldn't be able to nurse. The rings do not pierce the nose of the calf but merely held in by the width of the septum between the nostrils. After the initial weaning ring period, calves are completely separated from their dams and the rings removed.
Figure1. Nose weaning ring
Several studies indicate that weaning rings are effective in reducing the behavioral stress associated with weaning. Calves that wore weaning rings for as little 3 days spent more time eating and resting and less time bawling and walking than conventionally weaned calves.
However, several studies indicate that gain of calves weaned with a nose ring is similar or less than traditionally weaned calves. One report indicated a severe reduction in calf gain when rings were left in for 14 days. There are two causes for the reduction in gain. First calves have to learn how to graze with the weaning rings on. Certainly, these rings also get caught on forage during grazing and pull slightly on the calf's nose. When rings are left in for 14 days, they can cause the irritation to the nose. If the calf's nose gets too sore, the soreness will decrease his desire to eat even after the rings are removed. Occasionally, weaning rings are lost and then calves respond like conventionally weaned calves when separated from their mothers.
This method of weaning looks very promising and several farms in Virginia have used weaning rings successfully. It appears that 3 to 7 days is the optimal time to leave weaning rings in place. Rings are relatively inexpensive ($0.75 to $2.50) and can be cleaned and re-used. More research needs to be conducted on nutrition or grazing programs for calves while the weaning rings are worn.
More to weaning than no milk
To gain the premium for selling a "weaned calf", most value-added programs and buyers require that calves are used to feed bunks and water troughs. The feed bunk portion of the equation is pretty simple with low-stress pasture weaning systems. Calves can easily be trained to eat feed out of a portable feed bunk in the pasture. Calves adapt to feed bunks more rapidly if they are introduced about a week before weaning so they learn from their dams. For typical Virginia pastures where water is often supplied in form of a creek or pond, the water trough aspect is a bit tougher. Having a couple of pastures where the only water provided is from water troughs can overcome this problem. A number of cost share programs to develop watering systems that keep cattle out of surface water are available to assist with installing water troughs.
Marketing of weaned calves is also important. Little premium is paid for weaned calves if they are taken to the local market and buyers have to mix them with un-weaned calves to make a load. Grouping weaned cattle with weaned calves from other operations and selling tractor trailer loads is one option. Marketing though special weaned calf sales at a livestock market is another.
With several alternative methods for weaning calves, cow/calf producers should be able to take advantage this value-added option.
Buskirk, D.B. 2003. Effect of a 2-step weaning system on performance of calves. Cattle Call 8:5. Michigan State University
D. B. Haley, D. W. Bailey, and J. M. Stookey. 2005.The effects of weaning beef calves in two stages on their behavior and growth rate. J. Anim. Sci. 2005. 83:2205-2214
E. O. Price, J. E. Harris, R. E. Borgwardt, M. L. Sween and J. M. Connor. 2003. Fenceline contact of beef calves with their dams at weaning reduces the negative effects of separation on behavior and growth rate J. Anim. Sci. 2003. 81:116-121