Over half of beef calves are weaned in the livestock trailer on the way to the sale barn, according to USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System survey. That is too much stress for these calves.
Calves face many types of stress in their early days, including weaning, castration, vaccinations, diet changes and transportation. Stress increases their risk of contracting a respiratory disease upon entering the feedlot, University of Missouri Extension beef nutritionist Eric Bailey says.
He says 17% of calves entering the feedlot already show signs of bovine respiratory disease, costing the beef industry $800 million annually.
One way to reduce that stress is to wean them at home. It will help with calf performance and improve a cattle producer’s profit. Bailey says this method is “tried-and-true” for cattle producers.
He offers the following “at-home” techniques to help the weaning process:
Nose clips. Placed in the nostril, this prevents the beef calf from sucking and encourages them to eat hay and feed concentrates. After the nose clip is removed, calves are physically separated from their dams. This low-stress method costs about $2.25 per nose flap.
Fence line. This beef cattle weaning technique puts calves on one side of the fence and mama cows on the other side. It typically lasts five to seven days after separation. Good fences help in this method. Fence-line weaning improves performance and helps calves bawl less. Calves that are abruptly removed from their mothers bawl twice as much as gradually weaned calves.
Weaning at home can cause some cattle to go off water and feed. Calves that don’t eat well after weaning face risk for illness, generally 14 to 28 days after weaning.
When it comes to water, cattle producers can encourage drinking and eating by placing physical barriers within the pen so that calves must walk past water and feed sources.
To help calves adjust to new feed, Bailey suggests adding hay to the mix. On the day of weaning, offer calves 1% or more of their body weight in high-quality grass hay. The next day, offer hay at 1% of body weight and begin to offer 0.5% to 1% of body weight in grain. Put the grain under hay in the bunk to get calves to eat down to the new feed. Putting a new feed on top may cause calves to avoid it, he says.
Increase the concentrate to 1 pound (dry matter basis) each day until cattle are eating 2.5% of their body weight in concentrate. Discontinue hay between days three and five. This type of system should help weaned calves acclimate to feed before heading to a feedlot either on the farm or in a feedyard.
From the time they were born, calves experience a number of stressful events. The key, Bailey says, is to spread those events out over time.