Successful Early Weaning: Consider Water, Weaning Method, Vaccination Program and Animal Handling

Larry Hollis, Extension Beef Specialist
Reprinted from

With the hot, dry Summer currently being experienced in many parts of Kansas, traditional weaning plans may need to be significantly altered. Cows are out of grass in many areas, and grass is extremely short in others. Early weaning of calves should be strongly considered. Considerable research has shown that it is a much better use of resources to wean the calf early, and either sell or feed the calf, than try to feed the cow enough to sustain lactation through a drought. Doing this will hold feed costs down both now and this Winter when you are trying to get cows in condition to (1) survive the Winter, (2) calve successfully, and (3) be in reasonable body condition score (BCS) to breed back next year. Many cows may be close to drying up on their own because of the lack of feed, so the primary thing they may be providing is merely companionship for the calf.

Consider these factors when early weaning.

• Water. Freshly weaned calves need plenty of fresh, clean water, especially if weaned during the heat of summer. Hopefully they have had access to water alongside their mothers, but if their mothers are drinking from an elevated tank or tub that calves cannot reach, they may need to be provided with a readily-available, closer-to-the-ground water source so that they are trained to drink from it prior to actual weaning time.

• Weaning method. Research has shown that “soft” weaning methods such as fence line weaning or nose clip weaning result in better maintenance of existing calf weights or subsequent calf performance than traditional “hard” weaning methods (abruptly separating cows and calves and placing calves in a drylot or unfamiliar pasture situation). When calves are weaned with either soft method, calves have the benefit of knowing their way around the pasture, including where shade, water and feed are located. If facilities permit (calf-proof fences between 2 adjoining pastures), fence line weaning is preferable over nose clip weaning because it does not require running calves through the chute twice to install and remove the nose clips. Hard weaning methods always result in greater calf weight losses than soft methods. Also, hard weaning, especially when calves are weaned in dry, dusty pens, almost always results in more respiratory health problems.

• Vaccination program. If some of the better calves need to be held for replacements, or calves are typically marketed through a value-added preconditioning program or marketing system, they will benefit from the same preconditioning and vaccination program that would be utilized if they were held until normal Fall weaning time. Feeding programs following weaning need to be adjusted to meet the needs of these lighter calves. When processing calves during the hot Summer, be careful to make sure that vaccines are handled properly, because heat can spoil vaccines rapidly if they are not kept refrigerated during transit and chuteside while working calves. If modified live virus vaccines are used, it is imperative that they also be protected from sunlight. Over 60% of viral particles in the bottle or syringe will be inactivated by only 1 hour of exposure to sunlight. Keeping the vaccine bottles and syringes in a cooler except when animals are actually being injected will help protect the product from both heat and sunlight.

• Working cattle. Try to gather cattle into loose grass traps or large pens near the working facility where they have plenty of space prior to
being worked. If possible, this should be done the evening before working the cattle. Try to have all work completed by 10:00 in the morning. Also, fresh water needs to be available both before and soon after working through the chute.

We can’t escape an occasional drought, but we can manage our way around them and reduce their negative impact. With a little advance planning, early weaning can be accomplished and the herd set up to recover more quickly once it finally starts raining again.

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