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Make weaning work better

Alan Newport Weaned calves at a bunk
Some pre-planning and good handling go a long way toward successful weaning.
Prepare the immune system, supply good nutrition and ease separation anxiety.

As the leaves begin to turn, it’s time to think about getting calves weaned. While there’s more than one way to wean a calf, there’s certainly ways to wean that are better than others.

For those who continue to own their calves after weaning, it is imperative that weaning is done correctly. Every year, I talk to someone who has “always done it this way and never had a problem” over a calf that just died of pneumonia. The cost isn’t just in the calf, but in the roughly $25 per head we have to spend on an antibiotic to make the problem stop.

To make weaning work it requires some planning on our part. Through planning, we can give the calf three important improvements:

1. Good immune memory

2. Appropriate nutrition

3. A gentler separation from the dam

The reason for utilizing each of these components is to aid in the health of the immune system by building the calf’s immunity or decreasing stress on the animal.

Slow the separation

Stress is the enemy of immune function. Stress causes release of the hormone cortisol, which if released for a period of days at high levels downregulates the immune system. Though it is impossible to completely avoid stress by weaning, we can minimize how much occurs if we slow the separation between the calf and the cow.

There are multiple techniques to accomplish this objective. Fence-line weaning and using a nose flap (sometime referred to as a weaning ring) are two common ones. The key aspect to of any good weaning system is allow contact between the cow and her calf, but prohibit nursing. This allows the cow to dry off while still retaining the connection between the two. As a calf finds it can source all its nutritional needs from outside the cow, it becomes less attached to her.

Get them on feed fast

The critical component to hastening this separation is the availability of a quality diet. The calf’s main attachment to the cow is through its food. Consequently, if we don’t provide an appropriate diet off the cow, the calf will be less inclined to wean.

How we get the calf bunk broke for successful weaning can take many forms. This includes, but is not limited to, preweaning creep feed, settling the calf in the pen, availability of long-stemmed hay, among other options. Because each person’s operation is different, the best route is to work with a good nutritionist who can put together a diet plan that works for you.

Pre-plan vaccines

Another person to have on your weaning team is a veterinarian. However, it’s best to bring that vet on to the place a few prior to weaning to discuss a vaccine program. The act of sticking a needle in a calf is not synonymous with vaccination, making appropriate vaccine selection and timing of administration critical to creating an immune response.

While it is convenient to give vaccines at the time of weaning, it is the worst time to create a good immune response. The cortisol level is at its height at the time of weaning, interfering with immune function. Also, considering it takes at least a week or two before a vaccine can protect from a disease, it is too late to be advantageous in preventing pneumonia directly after weaning.

This is where it helps to work with a veterinarian that can construct a vaccination program that works with your schedule. Ideally, a calf is vaccinated with a five-way viral and a Mannheimia vaccine three to four weeks prior to weaning. As this may not be possible in all situations, modifying the grass turnout program to maximize immune response can help fill the gap.

While utilizing low-stress weaning will not prevent 100% of calf pneumonia, it is the best deterrent we can offer. If you are going to weaning soon, have no fear, there is still time to put these low-stress principles in place. And the nice thing is each has an additive effect, so if you cannot implement all of them this year, using some of them will still provide you the benefit of healthier calves after they are separated from their mothers.

The opinions of this author are not necessarily those of Beef Producer and Farm Progress.

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