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Weaning tips offered

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

As many producers know, weaning is one of the most stressful periods in a young animal’s life, and the intensity of stress felt during this time can cause lifelong impacts, eventually cutting in to the producer’s bottom line.

According to a publication prepared by Iowa State University (ISU) Extension Beef Specialist Dan Loy for the 2003 Four State Beef Conference, good performance and health during the first 30 to 45 days post-weaning can set the stage for an efficient and profitable feed out or a long and productive life in the herd. 

“On the other hand, most sickness and death loss due to respiratory disease happens at this time,” shares Loy, further noting respiratory disease affects one in seven feedlot cattle and is the leading cause of death. 

“Recovered cattle also gain more slowly and have lower value carcasses than healthy cattle,” he explains. “Also, digestive upsets that occur here may show up as founder, liver abscess and/or other side effects later on. Cattle fed too conservatively at this stage may pass up the most potentially efficient period of their life and add extra days on feed, and therefore, cost of gain.” 

To avoid this, cattle producers may want to start making a plan for low-stress weaning and proper post-weaning nutrition. 

Methods of separation

In a University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) article, published in August 2015, Authors Karla Jenkins, a UNL beef and range management specialist; Dr. Dee Griffin, a UNL feedlot veterinarian and Aaron Stalker, a former UNL Extension beef nutrition specialist, list several low-stress methods of separation producers may use this weaning season. 

First, is traditional weaning, which the authors define as “separating cows and calves abruptly without any residual contact.” 

In traditional weaning, cows or calves may be moved away from the ranch completely, which can cause vocalization and fence walking, lasting up to three days. 

The second method is fenceline weaning, in which cows and calves stay in the same area but are placed on opposite sides of the fence – a four- to five-strand barbed-wire fence reinforced with woven wire or electric fence has proven to work best, but successful fenceline weaning has also been accomplished with a two-strand electric fence, according to the UNL experts.

To accomplish best results, Jenkins, Griffin and Stalker suggest introducing pairs to the pastures used for weaning nearly a week before separation so calves can become accustomed to the new location. 

When separating pairs, calves should be left in the pasture they have grown somewhat comfortable in and cows should be moved to an adjacent pasture, sharing a fenceline long enough for animals to spread out and still maintain close physical proximity. 

The trio notes fenceline weaning generally takes around five to seven days and results in less vocalization, less fence walking and more weight gain post-weaning.

The third and final method of separation outlined in the article is two-step weaning.

According to Jenkins, Griffin and Stalker, in the first step, a plastic nosepiece is placed in the calf’s nose during preconditioning. The nosepiece allows calves to drink and graze, while preventing them from suckling. 

After 10 to 14 days without nursing, calves begin to wean themselves from their mothers. 

“Research has shown this method decreases vocalization and walking by cows and calves,” write the UNL authors. “At the time of dam and calf separation, calves and cows can be handled as described in the traditional weaning method.”

Post-weaning nutrition

It is critical to implement sound health and nutrition protocols for calves after they have been weaned from their mothers. In fact, many experts argue post-weaning nutrition is equally as important as calf nutrition in the first 24 to 48 hours of life. 

From the beginning, a calf’s nutrition primarily consists of its dam’s milk and the pasture it has been grazing, which is what the animal’s rumen bacteria become adapted to. 

Loy notes it takes one to two weeks for the rumen microbial population to adapt to new feed so it is important producers introduce new feeds into calves’ diets prior to weaning, and after they have been weaned, it is advised to continue using the feed calves have grown accustomed to.

“If the calves have been creep fed, ingredients used in the creep should be a part of their grain mix for at least the first few days,” Loy states. “Calves are adapted to grass, so long-stem hay for the first three to seven days is a normal recommendation.” 

He further notes, although calves usually prefer a dry-grain mix at first, they will adapt to high-moisture feeds, such as corn silage, over a one to two week period. 

“We have successfully started calves on many different feedstuffs including corn gluten feed, soyhulls, corn silage, green chop and haylage,” he says. 

Loy also shares in the 10 years of starting trials at the ISU Rhodes Research Farm, researchers have found “corn gluten feed adds energy and protein without contributing starch; soyhulls also add fiber, but not roughage; big bales reduce performance, but cattle compensate if placed on a total mixed ration (TMR); whole corn and alfalfa is an acceptable starting ration; calves can be started on corn silage, but a two-week adaptation is best and complete commercial pellets can work, but must be managed.”

“The important thing is to allow time for calves to develop an appetite for new feeds and for the rumen bacteria to adapt to new feeds. The feed mix should meet the nutritional requirements of the calves too,” Loy states. 

“TMRs should be formulated to provide enough energy for sufficient growth, but enough forage to aid in the transition from forage to grain,” he adds. “For normally weaned, well-managed calves, a ration of 50 to 60 percent concentrate and 47 to 50 Megacalories per hundredweight is ideal. For early weaned, high-stress or high-risk calves, a 65 to 75 percent concentrate will ensure higher energy intake at lower feed consumption.”

Loy further notes protein content should be 13 to 14.5 percent, depending on the situation, and additional vitamins and minerals may be required.

Look back to the previous edition of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup for an article outlining pre-weaning calf health and nutrition protocols to ensure a successful weaning.

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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