Nutritional and Management Strategies During Weaning

Chris Cassady, Ph.D, Beef Technical Sales Manager, BioZyme® Inc. 

Weaning spring calves is in full force, which means new calves will soon be entering a stocker or feedlot operation. Cattle are creatures of habit; and any disruptions to their livelihood will induce stress and impact performance. Weaning represents a massive interruption to their daily routine and can be regarded as one of the most stressful times in their life. How these freshly weaned calves are handled from a nutrition and management perspective can make a huge difference in their long-term profit potential. The goal for these calves is a successful, low-stress transition from their dams to their respective growing system. 

Weaning strategies are not a “one-size-fits-all” endeavor. Production systems are vast and diverse in terms of resources, so wean your calves using the strategy that best fits your facility and labor force. Typically, it’s a good idea to wean calves early if cows are thin or forage availability is low, so that cows can transfer available nutrients previously going to milk production to their own body. This year is no exception, with drought impacting a vast majority of cow-calf operations in the Great Plains, producers have had to make the tough call on weaning early to ensure subsequent rebreeding in their herds. 

There are three main strategies of weaning calves, each with pros and cons. It’s important to match your weaning system to your resources. Abrupt weaning is when calves are separated from their dams without physical contact but does allow the producer an opportunity to sell their calves right off the cow. This may be the only option for producers who don’t have the facilities to handle bawling calves. However, this method does induce the most stress on the calves. They are transported to a new facility and exposed to a completely new environment with a new diet and/or feeding system without any adaptation period to adjust to separation from their mother. 

The second weaning strategy is fence line weaning, where cows and calves have nose-to-nose contact through a fence line. This allows a lower stress transition for the calf because calves remain within a familiar environment and forage/diet type, giving them time to adapt to separation from their dams. However, those who don’t have a trustworthy fence system may not be able to practice this scheme, as we’ve all experienced the frustration of a calf or cow “jailbreak” and the time, cost and labor it takes to repair the problem.  

Finally, producers have the option to two-stage wean their calves by implanting a device that prevents the calf from nursing their dam. A calf is fitted with a nose ring and remains with the cow for up to two weeks before they are permanently separated. Various published research has shown reductions in vocalization and stress-induced movements using this method, which may keep the neighbors from complaining about loud, bawling calves. However, this is obviously the most costly, labor-intensive system, and it requires calves to be gathered and processed through the chute twice. Some producers have also reported lesions in the nostrils from the nose ring. If these areas get infected, the progress made in the low-stress system may be offset by another required treatment.  

The biggest goal in weaning systems is to remove the calf from its mother with the most economically friendly, limited-stress possible. Stress impacts health, feed intake and long-term performance, by inducing “flight or fight” hormones that cause digestive insults, which are correlated to immune function. Regardless of your weaning system, you won’t be able to eliminate stress entirely, so it’s best to give your calves the nutritional tools to get them on the right track.  

It’s important to “jump-start” the gut, and Amaferm® is a prebiotic that is research-proven to stimulate intake, digestibility and absorption. Vita Charge® Cattle Drench is fortified with Amaferm, fibrolytic and starch-digesting enzymes, plus chelated zinc and essential vitamins to generate a rapid digestive response in high-stress situations. Coupling a one-time dose of Vita Charge Drench with the Vita Charge Stress Tubs is an excellent way to reduce stress and promote feed intake. Vita Charge Stress Tubs contain MOS, organic trace minerals and a heat tolerant Bacillus probiotic and are a convenient way to ensure calves get their daily dose of Amaferm.  

Weaning is stressful on everyone. Regardless of weaning method, make sure to give those calves the nutritional tools so they can perform to the highest level with maximum health.  

It’s the difference in your own profitability as well as potential repeat buyers. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *