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Weaning transition adds to calf stress

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Traditional weaning is very stressful for calves, which leaves them vulnerable to illness since stress tends to hinder the immune system. To wean efficiently and with less stress, a producer needs to plan ahead and be set up to do it properly, according to researchers. 

Katy Lippolis, of Oregon State University’s (OSU) Animal, and Rangeland Sciences, did her masters work at Colorado State University (CSU), focused on low-stress weaning of beef calves using nose flaps. Her PhD work at OSU focused on management of weaned calves to mitigate the negative effects of stress and to optimize health and productivity in the feedlot. 

CSU work

Lippolis’ study at CSU was to evaluate weaning with nose flaps and how this affected cow performance, calf performance and carcass quality. 

“We also looked at the calves’ immune response to vaccinations,” Lippolis explained. “Nose-flap and fenceline-weaned calves spend more time eating during the first few days after being separated from the cows. They are less stressed and spend more time lying down relaxed, rather than walking around and bawling.”

“One of the biggest criticisms I hear with the use of nose flaps is ranchers have to put the calves through the chute an additional time to put the flaps in or take them out,” she said. “One of our projects was to see if we could coordinate this with vaccination.”

Lippolis explained research shows vaccinating prior to separating calves from cows provides better protection from disease in the feedlot, commenting, “So, we tried to combine a pre-weaning vaccination with installing the nose flaps at that time.”

“We didn’t feel we could do both at the same time and make it work,” she says. “The recommendation for nose flaps is to use them for about four to seven days prior to separation from the dams,” Lippolis continues. “Therefore, even if using a low-stress weaning method, calves should be vaccinated prior to weaning to provide optimum response to vaccination.”


Regardless of which low-stress weaning strategy is used, Lippolis says ranchers also needs to offer nutritional supplementation to meet calves’ requirements. Even with nose-flap weaning, where the calves still have their mothers for companionship and security, they experience some frustration at not being able to suckle.

“With the fenceline alternative, they are frustrated because they can see each other but they can’t get to each other. With the nose flaps, they can touch each other and the calves can go wherever mom goes, but they can’t nurse,” she says. “Either way, we are taking them away from an extremely nutritional food source – milk – and taking them away from the comfort of nursing.” 

“This behavioral trait for mammals isn’t only for nutrition but also for comfort,” she explains.

“Since we are removing that extremely nutritious food source, we want to give them an alternative food that will increase performance pre-weaning. If we completely take them away from milk without supplying something else in its place, we may hurt their immune system and physiology before they get to the feedlot,” she says. “This could be as easy as saving the best pasture for weaning calves.” 

Depending on feed prices, Lippolis also suggests taking advantage of a creep-feeding program ahead of weaning to get calves accustomed to eating highly nutritious feed. 

Preparing for the feedlot

At the end of the day, Lippolis explains the goal is to prepare calves for the feedlot.

“We can add value to calves by utilizing management or nutritional strategies that will decrease sickness. Feedlots don’t want sick calves,” she says. “Each time an animal get sick, profitability decreases. Not only does the feedlot have to spend more money treating calves to get them healthy again, but every time an animal gets sick, carcass quality decreases.” 

While feedlots have to spend more money to treat the animal, they also make less on lower-weight livestock, creating a double loss, says Lippolis. 

“A feedlot usually prefers to buy calves that won’t get sick. Producers might get premiums for calves that have already been through the stress of weaning,” she adds. “If the feedlot knows these animals have been prepared, they’ve already gone through the transition and are less likely to get sick, those calves bring a better price.”

Exposing calves to being on feed, vaccinating them and supporting their immune system prepares them to enter the feedlot.

Ranch assessment

The producer needs to assess pastures, feed costs and facilities to determine which management strategy might be best for that year. 

“The goal is to find a strategy that makes sense and will add value to calves by preparing them for the feedlot. The strategy may change from year to year, depending on the market, the weather, feed costs, etc.,” Lippolis explains.

If producers have good fall pasture, they might use a low-stress weaning strategy, put calves on pasture and retain ownership longer. 

“If corn is cheap, we can put calves on a creep feed a couple weeks before weaning and use a low-stress weaning method. We can improve gain, so calves will be heavier at weaning and have the advantage of knowing how to eat feed before they get to the feedlot,” Lippolis explains. “At every step, if we can take away some of the newness or abrupt changes, the more you can reduce the stress when they get there.”

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

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