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Weaning and preconditioning sets up producers for success

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

            This time of year, most cattle producers are shifting their focus to fall work. Preconditioning and weaning play a huge role in setting a producer’s cattle up for success – not only in their operation, but in their buyers’ operation as well.  

            Kansas Ashland Veterinary Center’s Dr. Randall Spare shares his expertise on how to make fall cattle work not only successful, but also low stress on the cattle during this time of year. 

Vaccination in healthy non-stressed calves 

            Producers understand the importance and even the basics of the vaccine they are giving, but attention to small details could lead to a more successful fall. 

“When we think of vaccination, we really want to be thinking immunizing,” shares Spare, noting producers want animals to respond to vaccines to the best of their ability. 

Spare notes there is a big difference between 100-day-old calves compared to 180-day-old calves when it comes to the maturity of their immune system. 

“By the time calves reach 150 days of age, the immunity they receive from their colostrum and from their early vaccines at branding has started to fall off and immune response is not as effective as we would like to see,” explains Spare. 

Spare believes this is the time producers need to be getting their calves in to vaccinate, especially because calves are in a more natural, low-stress environment. 

            “Another thing we want to go back and look at is the bottle of vaccine,” Spare notes. “Vaccine bottles say ‘vaccinate healthy, non-stressed calves.’”

A low-stress environment provides opportunity for antigens in the vaccine to work and for immunity to develop. 

“Studies show by the time cattle get to 21 days post-vaccination, the vaccine is fully effective,” adds Spare. 

He also explains pre-weaning vaccination needs to be done two to four weeks prior to weaning for positive results in the calves.

Handling vaccines and calves  

            Even small steps producers take while handling their vaccine is important. 

Spare says, “We need to take good care of our vaccine, keep it cool, only mix up what we can use an in hour and inject subcutaneously in front of the shoulder – following Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) standards.” 

Following this protocol, producers need to put calves back on cows immediately so when producers are ready to wean, their calves are then ready to respond to a greater stressor. 

            “I often tell people we need to prepare for weaning time 60 to 90 days prior to this separation,” explains Spare, noting this preparation is beneficial to both cows and calves. 

If possible, Spare recommends moving cows and calves into a pasture they can stay in for awhile before weaning. Cows will teach calves where water is, how to move about the pasture and where the boundaries of the pasture are. 

Come weaning, cows can be moved into the pasture next to calves, creating a low-stress situation for both parties: Calves are already well aquatinted with their pasture and tend to be less stressed with a gentle weaning. 

“I call it a weaning process because it should start in producers’ minds a couple months before actually separating cows and calves,” Spare shares. “Once we separate calves and we’ve vaccinated, I really encourage producers to leave them alone for a week to 10 days until calves are on a ration they’re all content with.” 

Optimal time or weight for weaning process

            “I’ve seen 350-pound calves wean just as easy or better than 650-pound calves,” Spare says. 

According to Spare, if producers wait too long to wean calves, calves may be more vulnerable because extra time has passed since their last vaccinations at branding, and even pre-weaning. 

“Producers have to be extra careful and create margins for stressful moments,” Spare adds. 

            “Another thing for producers to keep in mind is if we wean calves, the cow will gain over a pound a day for every day we’ve taken her calf off,” Spare explains, noting this allows the cows’ body scores to go up naturally without expensive supplementation. “Again, the best time for any producer to wean is based on what works well for each operation and their management.”

Spare continues, “I encourage producers to think about each one of their management practices, vaccination at branding time, pre-weaning vaccination, the time of fence-line weaning, a week to 10 days after vaccination and starting calves on a plane of proper nutrition. Each one of these management practices are what I call creating margin in the calf’s life.” 

The more margin producers can create will allow the calf to react to stress more positively throughout their life, which in return, creates success for the producer.  

Information in this article was presented during a Working Ranch podcast, dated Aug. 4. 

Delcy Bayles is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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