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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

The Cow-Calf Manager

Livestock Update, September 2006

John B. Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, Virginia Tech

Preparing for Weaning

Many buyers are now requesting weaned and backgrounded calves.  Most of these buyers are willing to pay for calves from a good health program that are weaned as indicated by the price advantage received by VQA calves.  Whether you wean calves on your own farm or at a custom backgrounder, managing calves prior to weaning is crucial for healthy calves that gain weight during the backgrounding/weaning period.  Even calves that are weaned “on the truck” will perform better in their new environment if pre-weaning practices are followed. Early September is the right time to ensure your calves are ready for weaning in October or November.  Preparations include maximizing calf health and nutrition and inspecting and repairing facilities.

Maximizing Nutritional Status.  In order for calves to respond to a health program or withstand the stress of weaning, they must have proper nutrition.  The most important aspect is that calves continue to gain weight.  Often in August and early September, limited amount of forage that is poor in quality severely reduces calf gains.  If good quality grazing or hay is available, calves should be allowed access to it either with their dams or by creep grazing.  If forage isn’t available, then 3 to 5 lb. of a fiber based energy supplements like corn gluten or soy hulls are good choices.

Minerals during the pre-weaning phase are essential.  Recent research indicates that the mineral status of calves entering the weaning phase or feedlot may be more important than the mineral program during weaning.  In other words, even though a good mineral program during weaning is important it cannot fully overcome existing mineral deficiencies.  Growing calves need calcium and phosphorus, which are usually provided in milk and grazing. A complete mineral containing calcium and phosphorus should be provided if soil phosphorus content is low and few legumes are in the pasture.

Zinc, copper and selenium all appear to be especially important in preparing calves for weaning.  Zinc should be provided at 0.18% to 0.36% (1800-3600 ppm) in the mineral mix.  Research from NC State indicates that 0.1% of copper will improve health status of calves.  Current recommendations are for copper levels in minerals to be 1000 to 1800 ppm (0.1% to 0.18%). Selenium should be supplied at the maximum level allowed by the FDA – 52 ppm for free-choice mineral and higher levels (up to 120 ppm) if fed according label directions.  Read the mineral feed tag and talk with your mineral supplier about the levels of these key “stress minerals”.

Vitamins are also important.  Vitamin A, D and E are usually provided in sufficient levels in grazing (A and E) or made by the animal from precursors in the diet (D).  Limited information indicates there may be an advantage to supplementing vitamin E, but levels in the normal diet should be sufficient.  Vitamin A, D and E should be supplemented if calves are not consuming fresh forage.

Maximizing Health Status.  After a solid nutrition program, proper stimulation of the animal’s immune system is essential for minimizing health problems during weaning.  There are 6 key diseases to vaccinate calves against (See insert).  Modified-live vaccines (MLV) provide the greatest level of immunity, but MLV Bovine Viral Diarrhea and IBR are not recommended for

calves suckling pregnant cows.  Several MLV products are approved for use on calves suckling pregnant cows if the cows were vaccinated pre-breeding with the same product.  You should contact your veterinarian for assistance in choosing the right type of vaccine for your situation.

Timing of vaccination is crucial.  If vaccinations require a booster, they should be given so the second (booster) injection is given 14 to 21 days before weaning.  Regardless of

Recommended Preweaning Vaccinations for Calves (VQA standards)

  • IBR
  • BVD
  • PI3
  • Clostridial – 7 way
  • Pasturella w/ leukotoxiod
  • BRSV (not required for VQA)
type of vaccine the last dose should be given no later than 14 days before weaning. This will have calves at the maximum antibody levels at weaning.  Remember to use clean sharp needles and give all injections in the neck.  Also keep vaccines cool and out of sunlight.

Minimize stress by handling cattle quietly and calmly while vaccinating or performing other health procedures.  Make sure all personnel have been instructed in proper cattle handling.  Work cattle in the cool parts of the day.  Another important aspect of minimizing stress at weaning is to accustom calves to close contact with people.  Walking through the herd daily will “tame” cattle down considerably.

Review and repair of facilities.  Proper well maintained facilities will not only make weaning easier on producers, but will reduce stress on the calves.  Corral fences should be sturdy and 5 feet high.  Working chutes should allow calves to flow through the system easily and be worked quickly.  Repair corrals well ahead of weaning or working cattle.  Early repairs will avoid “make do” patches that usually result in injuries to cattle and people.  Contact you Extension Animal Science Agent for corral plans or a review of your facility.

Calves should be exposed to water troughs or commercial waterers and feed troughs before weaning.  Making a water trough the only source of water for cow-calf pairs for 2 to 3 weeks before weaning will accustom calves to drinking out of sources other than a pond or creek.  Limited grain feeding (2 lbs./ animal/ day) in a trough on pasture will get calves used to eating out of a bunk.  If calves are fed alone, 2 feet of bunk space should be provided for each animal.  If they are fed with their dams, then at least 3 feet of bunk space should be provided per animal.  Remember a 10 ft long feeder provides 20 ft of bunk space if cattle can eat out of both sides!
Start your pre-weaning program this month.  A little work now will result in less problems and better calf growth at weaning.  Healthier calves will create a better reputation for your cattle.

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