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Animal scientist encourages ranchers to retain calves after weaning

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Gordon, Neb. – Weaning calves is similar to sending a child to kindergarten for the first time.

“Weaned calves have to cope with social stressors to adjust to a new environment,” according to Clint Krehbiel, head of the animal science department at the University of Nebraska. “These social responses become physical responses and influence how they metabolize.”

Krehbiel discussed ways to reduce stress in weaned calves during a recent Ranching for Profitability meeting in Gordon, Neb.

Immune response

“Ranchers need to do what they can to make sure their weaned calves can mount an adequate immune response during times of stress,” Krehbiel says.

Preweaning factors like prenatal nutrition, colostrum intake, bovine viral diarrhea virus persistent infections (BVDV-PI), health and pre-shipping management can all influence immunity and subsequent feedlot health, performance and carcass quality.

Post-weaning factors like transportation, commingling, receiving management and diet and metaphylactic treatments can also have an impact, he states.

Adjusting for performance

Some adjustments that could be made during the weaning phase of production may help calves perform better in the feedyard.

“The weaning strategy we use alters behavior, but it has minimal impact on performance over a 28- to 70-day period,” he explains. “The number one practice I would like to see more producers do is to wean their calves and hold them on the ranch for 30 to 45 days.”

Krehbiel continues, “I think the best animal husbandry practices are finding ways to eliminate stress in calves, and I would encourage all producers to set a goal of finding ways to reduce risk for clinical disease and enhance performance and carcass merit in these calves.”


Management practices he encourages producers to evaluate on their own operations are weaning methods, preconditioning, vaccinating, castrating, dehorning, nutrition, cattle handling and transportation.

Preconditioning calves can help alleviate weaning and shipping stress, while reducing health costs, he explains.

From a feedlot perspective, Krehbiel says timely castration and dehorning were listed as the number one factors that could help calves perform better in the feedlot.

Other factors were bovine respiratory disease (BRD) vaccines given two weeks before weaning, BRD vaccines given at weaning, weaning and holding the calves for four weeks before shipping them to a feedlot and bunk breaking calves. When calves get sick in the feedlot, the days they are on feed will go up and other factors like daily gain, feed efficiency and dry matter intake, go down.

“In high death loss pens, performance is reduced,” he explains.

Feed consumtion

Krehbiel also sees advantages to bunk breaking calves.

“Calves that are bunk-broke before they are shipped have advantages in gain, feed intake and feed efficiency,” he comments.

“Feed intake is the single most important factor affecting the production of feedlot cattle,” Krehbiel explains. “Low feed intake makes the correction of nutritional deficiencies difficult, which could further compromise immune function and potentially increase the susceptibility to infection.”

When dry matter intake in sick calves is significantly reduced, it impacts performance in the feedlot.

“What we would like to see is a weaned calf consuming at least 2.5 percent of its body weight in dry matter intake as soon as possible after its arrival,” he says.

In one study, Krehbiel says dry matter intake in a healthy calf on days zero through seven after receiving was 1.55 percent compared to 0.90 percent in a sick calf.

“Unstressed cattle typically consume feed in quantities sufficient to maintain adequate energy intake,” he explains. “In stressed cattle, voluntary intake of low energy diets is less than that of high energy concentrate diets.”

“Given a choice, stressed calves selected diets with 72 percent concentrate during the first week of arrival. Performance by newly received stocker calves is typically optimized with higher concentrate diets,” he adds.

Economic benefits

The animal scientist tells producers there are economic benefits to weaning and holding calves.

“It decreases cattle stress and shrink, improves immune function and gives us less reliance on metaphylaxis and ancillary therapies. It also increases body weight and subsequent performance, which increase marketing opportunities and keep our operations sustainable,” he adds.

Krehbiel left producers with a final thought, encouraging them to be thoughtful in their decisionmaking.

“Careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care and leaving behind a better place for the next generation is the definition of good stewardship. Cattle producers have a stewardship responsibility to manage available resources, which include land and livestock, while conserving and improving these resources,” he says.

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

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