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The Cow-Calf Manager: Weaning Strategies

Livestock Update, September 1998

John B. Hall, Ph.D., Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, Animal and Poultry Sciences, Virginia Tech

As the summer winds down, the traditional time to market spring-born feeder calves approaches. Proper weaning of calves in the cow-calf operation can add flexibility to the marketing program as well as reduce stress for calves and producers. Many producers miss an opportunity to add value to their calves before marketing or retain their calves as stockers by not weaning. Even producers that decide not to market their feeder calves as weaned calves, often retain some replacement heifers. A good weaning program can add value to feeder calves or get heifers off to a good start.

Basically, there are three types of weaning: truck weaning, traditional weaning, and pasture weaning.

Truck Weaning is simply pulling the calves off the cows and sending them directly to the market or "weaning them on the truck." This type of weaning is very stressful to the calf especially if the calves are sent to a commingled sale. Calves that are weaned in this manner are more likely to get sick in the feedlot or stocker pasture. An additional disadvantage is that this system limits the options for marketing the calves. They have to go on the day selected and there is reduced flexibility in when and where the calves are marketed. The advantage to this system is it's simplicity--it requires little additional labor or facilities for the producer.

This can still be an effective system if producers vaccinate the calves prior to weaning so they can be sold at a vaccinated sale. Follow the specific sale or Virginia Quality Assured guidelines for maximum benefit. If producers have tractor trailer loads of calves, there are often stocker or feedlot operators that are looking for "green calves" from a single source.

Traditional Weaning is weaning calves into a drylot or pen with feed bunks and water troughs. This system can produce the highest gains during the weaning and backgrounding phase, but it also takes the most labor. It also requires the greatest investment in facilities. In addition, if not managed properly, it can carry the greatest risk as calves are in close quarters and can be more susceptible to illness. The advantages to this system are ease of observation, high calf gains, easier care of sick calves, and good flexibility in marketing.

To make this system work, you need good, well-drained pens with feed bunks, water troughs, and working facilities. Calves should undergo a pre-weaning vaccination program like that outlined in the Virginia Quality Assured program. Weaning diets consist of excellent quality grass hay with increasing amounts of a grain-protein supplement. Grain supplements should be increased very gradually until animals are eating about 0.5% of their body weight in supplement. Calves will find water and feed more quickly if feed troughs or hay racks are placed perpendicular to the fence with one end touching; water troughs work best in the corners. If calves have only had creek water to drink, it may help to let water troughs run-over for the first night, as the sound will attract calves to the water. Another alternative is to introduce to feed troughs in the pasture a few weeks before weaning. Calves should be observed several times each day for the first two weeks.

Calves that go through a traditional weaning program are best suited for retained ownership, direct sale to the feedlot, or direct movement into a counter-slope (confined) stocker system. However, these calves can go back out to a grass-based stocker system as well. The high gains and flexibility in marketing are a distinct advantage. Calves should remain on this weaning and backgrounding system at least 45 days.

Pasture Weaning involves allowing calves to remain on a familiar pasture while moving their dams to a different pasture or farm. This relatively new technique is excellent for replacement heifers and calves going to grass-based stocker systems. It takes less labor than traditional weaning, the calves seem to be less stressed, and the calves are moved easily to the next phase of a grass-based system. However, gains can be lower and sick animals harder to treat than in the traditional weaning system.

To make this system work, you need plenty of high quality pasture (or stockpiled forage) and a good clean water source. In addition, getting the calves used to feedbunks and water troughs will increase gains and marketability of calves. For example in the VQA weaned program, calves must know how to eat out of feedbunks and drink out of troughs in order to qualify. A good system is to introduce calves to feedbunks in the pasture about 10 to 14 days prior to weaning. Three days before weaning cows and calves should be moved into a new pasture with plenty of grass. On weaning day cows are moved to another pasture while calves and feedbunks remain behind. As with the traditional system, calves can be gradually brought up to eating 0.5% of their bodyweight in supplement.

Calves weaned in this manner are best suited for grassed-based programs; although once they are used to feedbunks and water troughs, calves can move to a confinement situation with little trouble. Calve weaned using the pasture system need to have a pre-weaning vaccination program similar to traditionally weaned calves. Pasture weaned calves should remain on this system for at least 45 days before going to the next phase.

"Soft" versus "Hard" weaning. The advice for weaning for a long time has been at least two fence lines between cows and calves; two fence lines and a road are even better; a farm half way across the county better yet. But most of us still can recall the one cow or calf that can always seem to find its way back usually by trashing a fence. Recently, there have been several articles on "soft weaning." In "soft" weaning cows and calves are separated by a fence usually electric or good board, but can still see, hear, sniff, and be close to one another. Several producers I have talked to report good results with "soft" weaning as long as cows and calves can't get back together and calves can't suckle through the fence. It could be worth a try.

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