Weaning is a crucial time, not just for calves, but for ranchers too. Success in transitioning through this major life event can make or break a calf’s ability to grow and mature and your ability to turn a profit.
As well, many of the other practices accomplished at weaning for the sake of efficiency, like branding, compound an already stressful time in a calf’s life.
Ultimately this sets off a trickle effect that impacts health, weight gain and finished carcass value when these animals go to market.
Fortunately, you can implement practices that will help calves better transition through weaning and turn a bigger profit down the road. All require planning and implementing protocol that wards off potential stressors and thwarts roadblocks.
Weaning stressors are well documented. The primary issues are related to social separation, a new environment, and new feed and water. Failure to address these factors often cause the biggest hiccups for weaning. Transporting calves via trailer from one location to another also causes stress.
When calves are introduced to a new environment, they spend a significant amount of time pacing the perimeter of the space.
As well, they often reduce their intake of feed and water, which immediately limits growth and nutrition. As well, vaccines may be less effective when they are administered at this point.
According to Oregon State Extension, calves that are sick 30 days after they are transported to the feedlot may experience lower daily gains, increased costs of gain, and reduced carcass quality and tenderness.
Though a goal of no stress is pie-in-the-sky, mindful steps can be taken to mitigate common pitfalls that add to the problem exponentially.
In some setups, managers make a habit of walking the perimeter of a small lot or pasture to identify strategic spots to place bunks and troughs that ensure calves have easy access to energy at all times.
Because calves walk the edges of the pen, placing a bunk and/or trough along the perimeter essentially puts feed and water right in front of them.
In a bulletin, Aaron Berger, an extension educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says that introduction of the new feed prior to weaning can also encourage calves to start eating the feed more quickly post weaning. Also, providing a feedstuff that is balanced and highly palatable will encourage calves to consume it sooner.
Similarly, New Mexico State University notes that providing access to the weaning area prior to the actual weaning process can help reduce the impact of the environmental change. Another option would be moving the cows out of the lot first, allowing the calves to stay in a familiar environment.
Two tried-and-true, low-stress methods include nose weaners and fenceline weaning as both maintain maternal social contact but prevent nursing. By maintaining cow-calf contact, a calf is better able to adapt to a new environment because there is one less issue to overcome all at once.
Research has found that fenceline weaning results not just in less vocalization, but also increased time eating and greater weight gain.
Managing external factors
Stress isn’t only caused by the act of weaning itself. It is brought on and exacerbated by a variety of other factors happening at this critical time in a calf’s life. These include castrating, dehorning, vaccinating, and branding, which often happen during or near weaning time.
When possible, it is best to practice these tasks well in advance. In fact, by vaccinating calves prior to weaning, you may also boost the immune response thereby reducing the odds of health issues during and immediately after the high-stress event of weaning.
Another tactic to control stress is to monitor feed intake and act accordingly. Identify animals that are struggling with the transition or may be lower in the pecking order and getting pushed away by giving them extra care
“From an industry perspective, how we manage our calf crop, pre-weaning, at weaning, and post-weaning, can have dramatic effects on economic viability, consumer acceptance and end-product quality,” according to Oregon State University.
The way you manage your animals, from calf pen to feedlot and beyond, will have a dramatic effect on your bottom line too. Start from the ground up by giving your calves the best chance of overcoming the weaning hurdle.
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