Now is a good time to wean calves, and producers should select the weaning method that best fits their operation, according to North Dakota State University Extension livestock specialists.
For the beef industry, weaning can be defined as “the process of causing a calf to stop feeding on its mother's milk, to rely completely on other source of feed and to live without the cow’s company (at least temporarily) for the purpose of beef cattle production.”
“Weaning is a management practice inherent to beef cattle production,” said Yuri Montanholi, NDSU Extension beef cattle specialist.
Here are some reasons for weaning:
- Results in better efficiency in nutrient use when calves consume nutrients directly from feed rather than in milk from the cow
- Helps reduce the cow’s energy requirements, which is crucial to cows maintaining adequate body condition
- Enables the management of market cows and the sale or backgrounding of weaned calves
Producers have several methods for weaning calves. These vary in cattle-handling requirements, and facilities, equipment and experience necessary. As a result, weaning methods provide distinct experiences to calves, impacting their well-being, which will affect their performance and health.
Types of Weaning
Corral weaning, also known as traditional or total-separation weaning, is a popular method that many producers consider to be “practical.” Under this method, cows and calves are separated abruptly. Most of the time, calves are kept in unfamiliar places and commingled with unfamiliar herd mates from different summer pastures. This method leads to excessive bawling and triggers other stress responses.
“Our research demonstrated a 75% increase in cortisol, a key indicator of stress, and a weight loss of 18 pounds after three days postweaning in calves subjected to the traditional method,” said Karl Hoppe, Extension livestock systems specialist at NDSU’s Carrington Research Extension Center.
Fenceline weaning, as implied, consists of separating cows and calves into adjacent areas. They can see and sniff each other, but suckling is not possible. Under this method, cows and calves gradually lose interest in each other.
Weaning experts recommend that calves be kept in an area (weaning pen or trap, or pasture) with which they already are familiar. After a few days of separation, the producer can evaluate if the cattle are sufficiently weaned and then move the calves away, as needed.
Good fencing for this option is essential. Some experts recommend fences with five strands of barbed wire plus electrical wire.
Nose flap weaning, also known as two-step weaning, is based on the placement of a plastic flap in the nose. The flap allows eating (grazing and feed at the bunk) and water drinking but not nursing.
Producers normally remove the flap within a week of its placement, when calves and cows are separated. In the market, you can find flat flaps and flaps with spikes.
“The flat flaps already do the work expected,” said Gerald Stokka, NDSU Extension veterinarian and livestock stewardship specialist. “I’m aware of some producers who apply the nose flap and then the fenceline method. This may be a good idea to further ease the stress of weaning.”
In general, research indicates that total-separation weaning will result in the poorest performance, and this is further aggravated if other procedures (dehorning, castration, etc.) are used at weaning, while two-step and fenceline weaning will result in similar productive performance. The difference could be 50 pounds or more of weight gain per calf within 60 days of weaning with a combination of the two-step and fenceline weaning, compared with the total-separation method.
“Regardless of the weaning method chosen, considering the weather forecast when selecting the day of weaning is important,” Montanholi advises. “Cattle also should be habituated to management and handling. Producers should use calm and effective handling practices.
“Once calves are weaned, they must be monitored daily for signs and symptoms of illness, and feed and water intake to make sure they are consuming the proper ration for optimum growth,” he adds.
To learn more about weaning calves, check out a webinar at https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/extension/livestock. It was one of the Fall Agriculture Challenges webinar series that NDSU Extension hosted.