Weaning is a big shock to most animals and is often compounded by simultaneous housing leading to stress which reduces growth rates and may precipitate disease.
Veterinary surgeon, Joe Henry, Black Sheep Farm Health, Rothbury, Northumberland, offers some advice...
Ultimately, beef farmers get paid for the amount of kilograms of beef they produce, so ensuring constant weight gain is crucial.
Therefore, a smooth weaning process without any setbacks is important.
Mr Henry says: “Weighing at weaning is an important part of management, as this is the measure of the suckler cows’ output.
“Farmers are used to measuring tonnes of corn per acre or litres of milk produced, so this should be no different.
“Hopefully the average weight at weaning is increasing year-on-year as most costs also increase.
One of the best ways to lift average weaning weight is to increase the number of calves born in the first three weeks of calving by improving the fertility of the herd.
Targets are greater than 65 per cent. Sheep farmers have long known the advantages of a short lambing period for ease of management.
“Cows can be weighed as well to give calf weight as a percentage of cow weight to show which are the most efficient cows. Seldom do the big 800kg cows wean a 400kg calf."
“Care should be taken when interpreting weaning weights as percentage of cow weight, as cow condition score has a large manipulation on the equation.
“The nutritional change calves go through is enormous. On the protein front, milk is approximately 26 per cent of top-quality protein and if an estimate intake is six litres a day, this is 1.2kg DM. The rest of the 300kg calves’ dry matter intake of 7kg is made of autumn grass which may be around 20 per cent protein. So overall protein percentage can be around 21 per cent.
“With a lot of silage at around 11 per cent protein and beef nuts around 16 per cent protein there is big change to the diet. Ways to smooth this transition are to feed some soya for a few weeks after weaning to boost the protein levels, and this can reduce the weaning check.
“In addition, by feeding silage pre-weaning, the calves learn from their mothers that it is good to eat and helps reduce the step change in protein, so helping remove two sources of stress.
“Starting with some starch pre-weaning in terms of creep will also help get the calf’s rumen prepared for weaning.”
Mr Henry says separation anxiety can be reduced if the calves and cows can see and smell each other.
“Anti-suckling devices can be fitted but it can be tricky getting them to stay in the calve’s nostrils,” he adds.
“Weaning either side of a good fence (fence line weaning), cattle hurdles or electric wire is better than putting calves in one shed and the calves roaring their heads off in a separate one.”
Again, by avoiding the simultaneous dual stress of weaning and housing at the same time will reduce the growth check, so ideally wean pre-or post-housing.
Reducing the parasite challenge the calves are under will help increase their growth rates. Pour on ivormectins will kill lungworm and most gut worms for up to three weeks after treatment.
This means that the calves can, for example, be treated a fortnight pre-housing, allowing the lungworms to be killed and coughed out at grass while in a lower pneumonia risk situation and the drug will stop more being picked up.
However, if the calves are left out for more than three weeks after worming, they will need another dose. Alternatively, a longer acting anthelmintic can be used which lasts up to five weeks pre-housing.
No product kills fluke that are younger than a fortnight, so generally drenching with triclabendazole a fortnight after housing is optimal, unless advised by your vet. Combination worm and fluke treatments will very rarely be appropriate due to the ideal times of treatment being different.
Mr Henry says: “Due to the stress of a change of environment, feed and separation from mother, there is a high risk of pneumonia outbreaks.
“Disease is always a balance between infection and immunity and vaccinating can boost the calve’s immunity.
“There are lots of different vaccinations and your vet can help advise which is appropriate to your farm and your diseases, but key is getting the vaccinations completed and immunity build up before the period of stress.
“The biggest cost of pneumonia is always the unseen lack of growth for a month afterwards.”
Discussing with your vet and, if necessary, introducing some management changes can avoid a post-weaning check and keep calves growing on and increasing in value.