Weaning Fall Calves

— Written By Nathan Kiger

LivestockPhoto: Center for Environmental Farming Systems – Amazing Grazing

Now is the time of year to start weaning fall calves if you have not already done so. Calves born between September and November should be weaned around 7 months of age. To determine the most appropriate weaning time, and method, we need to examine both the cows themselves and the available facilities.

Timing

Along with age, calves should be weaned based on their mothers’ appearance. Weaning should take place when their mothers (dams) are in a Body Condition Score (BCS) of 4-5. With adequate nutrition, this allows the dams to get close to a BCS 6 by their next calving date and continue to grow a healthier unborn calf. It takes roughly 60-80 lbs to increase or decrease a whole point, so BCS should be taken to determine appropriate weaning time when compared to calving date. More info on BCS here:

Body Condition Scoring Beef Cows

Methods

Weaning is one of the most stressful times in a calf’s life, which can lead to a decreased immune system response, so stress should be mitigated whenever possible. To begin, prior to weaning, creep feeding and creep grazing should be introduced to calves. During this time, proper nutrition such as forage, mineral, supplement, and clean water should also be available to both cows and calves. Here are a few methods of weaning, but keep in mind that these methods can be used together.

  • Nose plates (2 Step Method): Step 1) Use a nose plate to prevent calves from nursing while cows and calves continue to commingle. Step 2) After roughly 2 weeks, cows and calves should be completely separated.
    • Pros: Calves are cut off from milk, but stay with cows, which reduces stress.
    • Cons: Plate retention rates will vary, so calves need to be monitored regularly to assure their plates have not fallen out. You will also need facilities to hold the calf while inserting the nose plate. 
  • Fenceline Weaning: Cows and calves are separated but share a fence so contact can be made, but nursing is prevented.
    • Pros: Less stress than total separation, calves do not need to be handled during weaning, only moved. 
    • Cons: Two separate pastures with grass, water, and a strong, shared fence line is needed. 
  • Total separation: Completely separating cows and calves to new pastures so they are out of “earshot” of one another.
    • Pros: No contact whatsoever. Cows should be less mobile if they can not hear their calves. 
    • Cons: Potentially all-new environments for both cows and/or calves, which adds to stress. Additional resources needed for both pastures (land, water, fencing, etc.).

Duration

As mentioned earlier, weaning can lead to a decreased immune system response. This means that calves weaned while en route to the sale barn have a higher tendency to get sick and potentially die, which means they are less desirable to buyers. So before selling, calves should be weaned for 45 – 60 days. This time frame is generally accepted by the industry and is often dictated by certain sale guidelines. So be sure to check sale requirements before hauling calves to the sale barn. 

In summary, weaning is stressful for both cows and calves, so anything we can do to mitigate that stress is going to help the bottom line. Feel free to reach out if you have questions!

Thank You!