With the changing of seasons comes a change in farmer schedules. In a few weeks many beef farmers will begin weaning calves off of the cows on pasture. This is a stressful time for both the cow and calf. “Traditional” weaning calls for an abrupt separation of the cow and calf. This results in the dreaded bawling of cattle for about a week or two. This is not pleasant for the cattle, your neighbors, or you if you live anywhere in the vicinity.
While the “traditional” method above “gets the job done,” there are better options to make weaning less stressful for cattle and humans alike. Weaning in the traditional route puts several stressors on the calves at once: being handled, separation from the mother, new environment, and new feed. All of these stressors converging at once can lead to a health disaster. Stress can lead to depressed appetite and sickness.
Tips for a low-stress weaning
1 Work with you veterinarian on a sound herd health plan. Having an effective herd health plan can reduce the chance of calves getting ill after weaning. This plan may include some strategic vaccinations prior to weaning. It might also include strategic mineral supplementation prior to weaning to help boost the immune system. Mineral supplementation may include copper or zinc as these are important minerals for immune function.
2 Creep feed your calves prior to weaning. If you expect your calves to eat feed after weaning, they need to have been exposed to it prior to weaning. If you intend to have calves eating hay at weaning, you need to offer hay before the calves get weaned. New feed should be introduced to calves at least two weeks prior to weaning. If you intend to wean calves to a pasture setting, this step is less effort as the calves are already familiar with the forage from the summer. You will however, still want to familiarize the calves with the pasture they will be in after weaning so they know where the water tank and any mineral feeder may be. You can do this by having the cows and calves in the pasture you intend to wean to for at least a day immediately prior to weaning.
3 Beef up your fence line. If you aren’t weaning to a feedlot, odds are that you need to do some maintenance on the fence line that will separate the cows from the calves. This fence line needs to be sturdy enough to withstand some testing. Your cows and calves should be familiar with the fence so there isn’t additional stress on learning about a new fence.
4 Handle prior to weaning. This is a big step that is often overlooked in the weaning process. If calves haven’t been handled much prior to weaning, just the act of handling to get the calves separated from the cow can be a major stressor. Calves should be able to walk calmly past a handler. They should be able to do this as part of a loosely bunched group, like they will be at weaning. Yes, this will take some additional time, but if it keeps animals from getting sick, this step should be part of your weaning preparations.
Note: This article originally was published in the Marquette County Tribune, Waushara Argus, and/or the Berlin Journal. This article was written by Lyssa Seefeldt, UW-Extension Agriculture Agent for Marquette County unless otherwise noted.