Taking the time to get the weaning stage right can have numerous benefits for both cow and calf. Aly Balsom speaks to vet Hannah Bradon from Endell Farm Vets to get some handy hints on how to do it.
Managing weaning to minimise stress, nutritional changes and growth rate checks can bring significant benefits to both cow and calf production.
Miss Bradon says: “The aims of the weaning process are to produce a healthy calf that achieves optimal daily liveweight gains (DLWG) to grow into fattening stock or future breeding stock.
“We also want a cow with adequate body condition and immune status ready for successful service in the following calving season, and to produce a profitable calf crop at sale. As a result, taking the time to get the weaning process right is vital.”
Weaning is a good time to assess cow body condition (BCS) as a means of determining how well they are coping with their diet and energy demands, says Miss Bradon.
“Nutrition is a key aspect of any beef enterprise and it is important to get it right in order to maximise cow health and performance.”
Ideally adult beef cattle should be condition scored at weaning, two to three months prior to calving and at calving. At weaning, dam BCS should be 3.0 for spring calvers and slightly leaner for autumn calvers. If BCS is off target, appropriate management steps should then be put in place to put animals on target.
Miss Bradon also advises carrying out routine analysis of supplementary forage, together with trace element/mineral status of cows to ensure nutritional requirements are being met.
Studies have shown using weaning strategies which mimic elements of the natural weaning process will have a positive effect on calf behaviour and welfare at weaning.
Miss Bradon says: “Although abrupt weaning at around 240kg at six to seven months of age is common, natural weaning usually takes place later and more gradually. Think about creep feeding four weeks prior to weaning, separating cows and calves using a fence line that prevents suckling, but maintains contact or using barrier methods such as nose flaps.”
Avoiding unnecessary stress at weaning is also crucial to minimise the usual ‘growth check’ seen around this time. Any disruptions to growth can lead to delayed puberty and breeding or prolonged target slaughter weights.
Miss Bradon says: “It is advisable to avoid unnecessary stressors such as castrating, dehorning, and abrupt diet or environment change at the same time as weaning. It also makes absolutely no sense from a calf health or welfare point of view to split cows from calves at their annual TB test, castrate and dehorn them and then placing them in a shed for the winter.”
The stress of weaning can also potentially predispose calves to pneumonia, so speak to your vet about an appropriate vaccination strategy pre-weaning.
Creep feeding for four weeks prior to weaning at about 1.5kg/day has been shown to increase weaning weights, aid in development of the rumen and help prevent a significant growth check post-weaning.
Supplying creep feed can help to:
Miss Bradon believes early weaning may also be worth considering in first time calvers, if grazing is scarce or cows are in poorer condition. This can help boost calf growth rates and carcase quality and save costs.
Miss Bradon advises recording key parameters to track performance and also working with a vet to design a farm specific weaning strategy.
“It is becoming increasingly useful to have good performance records for benchmarking and decision making,” she says. “Record calf weaning weights and age to allow you to calculate DLWG. Also consider percentages of heifer in calf, age at first service, slaughter weights and calf mortality. This will help you measure how successful weaning has been and pinpoint areas for improvement in future years.”
Recording the numbers of pneumonia cases and calf mortality rates can also help measure how successful the immediate post-weaning management has been.
Once the calf has stopped suckling, the cow should dry herself off naturally, but keep an eye out for swollen or painful udders which could be an indicator of mastitis, says Miss Bradon.
“Two of the major influences for setting the dam up in the post-weaning phase are the appropriate BCS at calving and a rising plane of nutrition for the next mating period,” she says.
“Condition score cows at weaning to pick out any poorer animals that may need extra TLC in the post-weaning period. This is also a good time to identify empty animals that will not enter the breeding herd for the following year. Prompt culling will avoid extra hard feed use.”