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Weaning Calves – Reducing the Stress

21 October 2021

Beef production is an annual cycle, with it now being the time of year again when producers will be weaning calves.  Weaning is a stressful time for both calves and cows breaking the maternal bond and changing diets.  Weaning is the most stressful time of an animal’s life after birth.  But there are strategies beef producers can take to reduce weaning stress and the effect on performance associated with weaning.

Age at weaning depends on the farm system and what fits your system with cow condition being a key consideration when deciding when to wean.  For those with leaner cows (first or second calvers or cows who have been milking longest) weaning calves early allows these cows more time to regain condition gradually in plenty time before calving.  Another option to consider for the leanest cows is to keep them alongside the weaned calves for a while, allowing them to benefit from the higher level of nutrition being fed to the calves allowing them to recover from rearing their calf and gain condition.

It is more likely that spring cows may well be in good condition with favourable weather conditions giving a late flush of autumn grass leading cows to be over conditioned at housing.  If this is the case you may want to hold off weaning till later.  Condition score cows to assess condition at weaning and housing.

For spring calving herds weaning coincides with the start of the pneumonia season and stress undoubtedly comprises the animal’s immune system making the calf more susceptible to disease.  Minimising weaning stress will help reduce the risk of pneumonia.

For the calf, weaning stress can in result in a 10 – 20 kg loss in performance and reduced liveweight gain when everything changes (calves are housed, maternal bond broken, milk is taken out their diet, their feed is changed and they are often handled for worming etc.).  Try to make these things a gradual change.

Avoid housing and weaning calves at the same time, to reduce the amount of stress they are exposed to at any one time.  If possible wean two to three weeks before housing.

Introduce creep feed to the calves diet at least four weeks before housing so that the change in diet is a gradual one and it also means that the calf will be used to hard feed.  Give the newly weaned calves access to the creep feeder that they are familiar with and have been used to.  Always continue to feed the same feed.

Vaccinate against pneumonia and clostridial diseases before housing if possible, if not at the point of housing along with treatment for internal and external parasites but avoid other routine practices such as dehorning or castrating at this time to avoid further stress.  You may want to clip a strip from the calf’s back to preventing sweating.

House calves in a well ventilated building, avoiding mixing different groups of calves together because of the risk of spreading disease amongst groups.  Keeping calves in groups they are familiar with will also reduce stress.

Introduce the store diet gradually (alongside the creep feed diet) if possible introduce calves to forage e.g. silage for 2 – 3 weeks while they are still with their mothers.  Ensure good quality forage is fed to weaned calves.

Sarah Balfour,

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