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Plan ahead to early wean calves

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

As range conditions continue to deteriorate as the drought intensifies, some beef producers are considering early weaning their calves. Calves can be weaned as early as 45 days of age, although most beef specialists and veterinarians recommend holding off to 90 days to make the calves easier to manage. 

Pick a secure facility

The key to early weaning is providing the calf with a tight corral, good shelter, plenty of water and a highly nutritional diet to prevent as much stress as possible. A veterinarian should also be consulted to develop a good vaccination program to prevent disease and a treatment program if sickness develops.

“It will be a challenge to get the calves off to a good start this year, given the relatively bad conditions we are having,” said Richard Randle, extension veterinarian with the University of Nebraska.

The veterinarian coached beef producers about management concerns they may have if they decide to wean their calves early.

Randle recommends fence line weaning or anti-nursing methods to early weaning calves to help eliminate stress. It may also be beneficial to provide the calves with some type of creep feed while they are still nursing to get them accustomed to eating novel feeds, he noted. After the calves are weaned, it is important to provide the calves with a well-sheltered area that is well secured. 

“Remember these calves are smaller in size and can fit through smaller holes in the fence,” he cautioned. 

With the lack of rain, dust can be detrimental to freshly weaned calves, so stockmen should do what they can to control it, either with sprinklers or by watering down pens. Some stockmen are bedding the calves with a good layer of straw to help control dust. 

“Dust can irritate the airway, and allow pathogens like BVD to enter the airway, so it is important to control it,” Randle said. 

Provide plenty of water, high quality diet

If there is a large weight range in the calves, Randle advised producers to sort the calves by weight, so they aren’t competing against each other for food and water. Also, provide a diet with the right balance of vitamins and minerals, which is key for early-weaned calves.

“Calves need a high quality, palatable diet that is well mixed because younger calves will sort their feed,” he explained. “It is critical to get the calves on feed by 48 hours after weaning, otherwise the risk of sickness and mortality can increase,” he said. 

Producers may want to consider implanting any calves that won’t be kept as replacements, Randle continued. Consider growth implants because they can significantly improve weight gains and feed efficiency and really enhance the diet. Ionophores, like Rumensin or Bovatec, can also improve feed efficiency and weight gain while helping control diseases like coccidiosis.

Randle recommends placing bunks at an angle along the fence line so calves will run into them. Each calf should also have 18 to 22 inches of bunk space. If the pen is large, it can be divided into a smaller area to push calves toward the bunk. 

“It is also important to keep the bunk clean, and remove the old feed daily to stimulate them to eat,” he said. 

Providing the calves with a plentiful clean water source is also important. 

“You may need to place the water source in the fence line so they will find it easier,” Randle explained. “Sometimes, if the water is running, it will lure them to it.” 

A calf should consume a gallon to a gallon and a half of water per 100 pounds of body weight in moderate temperatures. 

“As the temperature goes up, the water intake can double or triple to one to three gallons of water per 100 pounds of body weight, depending on the environmental temperature,” he said. 

Plan ahead to vaccinate

Ideally, some vaccinations should be given to the calf two to four weeks prior to weaning to allow the calf to build up some immunity before it goes through the stress of weaning, Randle said. 

“Being younger, the calf’s immune system may not be as mature, so it may not respond as well to some of these vaccines,” he reported. “In real young calves, there may be some maternal antibodies that could be influencing the calves, and how they respond to the vaccine. This makes it critically important to follow the label directions, and give the calves a booster vaccination if it is necessary.”

Randle also cautions producers if they are vaccinating calves prior to weaning, then putting them back with their dams while they are breeding, to make sure the vaccine they use has a label that allows them to do that. 

“This is particularly important with viral vaccines when you have a modified live or killed vaccine. Following the label directions is critically important,” he said. 

Randle said he would recommend for stockmen to work with their veterinarian to get a plan in place for what vaccinations to use and establish the appropriate timing so the calf can receive two doses before weaning, if it is necessary. 

“Timing is critical. You need to give those calves as much time as possible to get that immunity built up,” he said.

What to do if they get sick

Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) is one of the leading diseases infecting freshly weaned calves. Drought, combined with heat, can put a lot of stress on freshly weaned calves, and can cause significant lung damage in a matter of hours, Randle said. If a calf breaks out with respiratory disease, finding it early is key.

“I would recommend checking them at least two to three times a day for the first couple of weeks,” he said. 

Be observant. When feed is placed in the bunk, watch how they move to the bunk, and see if they eat. 

“It is important to spend time outside the pen just listening and observing,” Randle said. 

Listen for coughing, wheezing and abnormal or rapid breathing, which signals calves that are in distress. 

Watch for cattle that look sick. They may show lack of rumen fill indicating they are not eating. Watch for animals with obvious nasal discharge, or ones that have a dry, dirty nose because they aren’t feeling well enough to keep their nose clean. Calves not coming to the bunk that seem disinterested in their surroundings, are hanging their head or are slow and not responding may also need treatment.

“With BRD, erring on the early side is better than waiting,” Randle cautioned. “Move them into a treatment area, follow through with a treatment protocol, and consult with your veterinarian.” 

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to




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