Livestock Update, July 2007 - The Cow-Calf Manager

By Dr. John B. Hall Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, VA Tech
calendar icon 23 July 2007
clock icon 6 minute read

Moderate to severe drought continues in Southside and Southwest Virginia. In many other parts of the state two weeks of hot dry weather could throw beef farms into a drought situation. Carry-over hay stocks in a majority of the state are low to nonexistent. With severe drought in a number of Southeastern states, feed supplies are tight and expensive. One of the best ways producers can reduce feed costs, improve calf gains, and maintain cow condition is to early wean calves.

Early weaning is a scary concept for most producers. The idea of weaning 120-150 old calves is foreign to most of us. It takes a little more planning and technique than loading the calves up in November and taking them to the market. However, once you know the steps early weaning is not that hard.

A multi-step process

Early weaning follows 4 steps:
  1. Purchasing a quality diet
  2. Establishing a good health status
  3. Adapting calves to novel diet and water conditions
  4. Weaning in a low stress enviornment

Purchasing a quality diet

Diets for early-weaned calves need to be highly nutritious containing 72-75% TDN and 16% crude protein. The goal is to have calves gaining 1.75 to 2.2 lbs per day. In addition, it is optimal for diets to contain highlydigestible fiber feeds such as corn gluten feed or soy hulls rather than high starch feeds. High starch feeds such as corn or barley are very concentrated in energy but must be managed carefully so they don’t cause digestive upsets. The rumen of young calves is just developing, and even though calves can handle high starch diets fairly well, it takes good feeding management to avoid problems.

Diets for early-weaned calves can be purchased or home-made. The advantage to diets purchased from a reputable co-op or feed company is they are more likely to be properly balanced in terms of energy, protein, fiber, and minerals. In addition, many of them can contain medications or ionophores if desired or recommended by your veterinarian or nutritionist.

Mineral supplementation is important to early weaning. Early weaning diets as previously described have a very different mineral composition than pastures and hay. High quality minerals are recommended. The mineral supplement needs to balance the composition of the diet for calcium and phosphorus. In some cases, the phosphorus content of the feed may be sufficiently high that calcium may be the principle macromineral that needs to be supplemented. Calves will need supplements that are high in copper (1500 ppm), zinc (3600 ppm), manganese (3600 ppm) and selenium (56-60 ppm). Early weaning diets may be one of the best times to consider an organic or chelated mineral source. Organic minerals increase the availability of the mineral to these young calves and may be worth the extra cost for these animals.

Establishing a good health program

All health procedures should be completed at least 14 days before weaning. This allows calves to have sufficient time to respond to vaccinations. Calves should be vaccinated with a 7-way Blackleg and IBR, PI3, and BVD. Most likely killed virus vaccines will need to be used unless cows were vaccinated with an approved modified live virus (MLV) vaccine pre-breeding which is labeled for use on calves nursing cows. Although not ideal, the first dose of a killed vaccine can be given pre-weaning with the booster given at weaning.

If you are unsure of which vaccine to use always contact your veterinarian for advice. It would be good to let your vet know that you intend to early wean calves and work with him/her to design a health program. They may also recommend a pinkeye vaccine or coccidosis prevention.

Other management procedures including implanting, castrating, and dehorning should be completed at least 14 days before weaning. This will reduce stress at weaning and early post-weaning. Parasite control including deworming and a fly control program are important to reducing stress on early weaned calves and increasing their performance.

Adapting calves to novel diets and water

Most young calves have not seen feed before or had to drink out of anything but a creek or pond. The early weaning diet should be introduced to calves 10 to 14 days before weaning either in a creep feeder or in a trough that can only be accessed by calves. Remember to limit the amount of available feed in the creep feeder or trough until most calves are eating feed. While still nursing their dams, calves use creep feed inefficiently. It will take 8 to 10 lbs of feed to produce a pound of gain. In contrast, once they are weaned and the early weaning diet is their principle feed source, calves will eat 4 to 5 lbs of feed to gain a pound of body weight.

Clean plentiful water is important to early-weaned calves. Young calves get most of their water from mother’s milk and the lush grass they eat. Although they are drinking water, they are not drinking large amounts. If water troughs will be used to water early-weaned calves, troughs should be introduced during the two weeks pre-weaning.

Low stress weaning

All the procedures mentioned until now will reduce stress to early-weaned calves. However, the best way to keep calves growing and healthy is low stress weaning. Fenceline weaning is the most common low stress procedures. Calves and cows are moved to a new pasture adjacent to the weaning lot or last pasture grazed about one week before weaning. On weaning day, calves are left in the pasture and cows moved to an adjacent pasture. An alternative procedure is to move the calves to the weaning lot and leave the cows outside the fence. Obviously, a good fence is necessary. Woven wire, 4 to 5 strand high tensile electric, or board fence is needed to keep cows and calves separated. Several research studies have proven that calves weaned in this manner spend less time bawling and walking and more time eating and resting than calves moved far from their mothers. In about one week, the cows can be moved to a distant pasture.

Another alternative is to use nose weaning rings to prevent calves from nursing cows. Research from Michigan State University demonstrated that inserting weaning rings 5 days before weaning reduced weaning stress and improved early weight gain compared to normally weaned calves. These researchers also found that leaving the weaning rings in place for longer than 7 days caused too much nose irritation.

Final thoughts

The current drought and feed situation have put many producers in a bind. Trying to decide whether it is better to cull cows, buy feed, or wean calves is tough. Producers which are willing to employ strategies such as early weaning should be rewarded in the long run. Buying high priced feed to feed lactating cows or selling cows and light weight calves during drought conditions will negatively impact farm income. Being able to maintain the cow herd for a reasonable cost during drought conditions while keeping calves growing until fall is a good goal. Early weaning is a management option that can maintain farm income in the face of a drought.

July 2007

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