Preparing Your Calves for Weaning

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Image of calves

If you are a cow-calf producer then the future of the beef industry starts with you. Simple management practices in the areas of nutrition and animal health will better equip your calves to succeed at the next stage of development and have the potential to make you more money.

It is very important that you take special measures to ensure the health of your calves before they leave your farm. If you think you don’t need to process your calves because it doesn’t affect you then you are sadly mistaken. Vaccinating, castrating and dehorning calves will directly determine if that calf will succeed or fail during the next stage of development which in turn directly affects the success of the US Beef Industry and ultimately comes back to affecting you as a producer. When you think about why you’re farming, the bottom line is to put a high-quality product on the market to feed people. In order to do that calves need to be healthy and that starts with you, the cow-calf producer.

It is a good idea to work with your veterinarian on specifics for vaccinating your calves. Vaccination protocols will vary between management strategies, if calves are leaving your farm directly at weaning then they should at least get one round of vaccines and dewormed if they will be leaving your farm 45 – 90 days post weaning then they should receive 2 rounds of vaccines and dewormed. Calves should be given a modified-live and clostridial vaccine initially while they are still nursing and then boostered 3 – 4 weeks later. Other vaccines like Inforce3 are very good to give when calves are going to be stressed, like weaning. These vaccines help protect calves against various viruses that are detrimental to their health. Calves also need to be dewormed. There are many types of dewormers on the market and they can be given a variety of ways; pour-on, oral, and injectable. Talk with your veterinarian to determine which might be the most effective in your area.

Calves that are weaned can be marketed as such and will bring a premium at the sale since buyers know that they will be less stressed and will go the feed faster than a calf that has not. Studies have shown that calves weaned for 90 days will perform better at the feedlots and shrink less during the transition. The majority of buyers want calves weaned for at least 45 days if you cannot hold them for the entire 90 days. Getting calves off the cows is not only beneficial to the calf but to the cow as well. During this later stage of gestation, the cow needs to put on some weight since she will lose weight after calving. Also, her body needs to work on growing the calf inside her rather than feeding the one on the ground. Making cows work through their gestation has shown to affect them negatively which will directly affect their ability to raise their next calf.

Another management strategy that will help your calves be successful and increase your profits is nutrition, more specifically, creep feeding. Creep feeding with grain has been proven to improve weaning weight by as much as 100 pounds over non creep fed calves. Creep feeding high-quality forages has been shown to be similar or slightly less then gains from grain-based creep programs. Creep grazing is often the most economical way to add extra weight on calves since it is usually cheaper to grow high-quality forages than to buy grain. Calves prefer milk over creep feed and tend to forage and nurse to capacity before touching specific creep feed or forage. Creep feeding does not affect daily milk intake but grain-based creep feeding will decrease forage intake. On the other hand, if you have a cow or heifer that is a low milk producer, the calves nursing those animals will compensate for this by increasing creep feed intake and will be able to keep their growth performance equal to the other calves in the heard. Feed efficiency is key when creep feeding, typical ranges are 5-9 pounds of feed to 1 pound of calf weight.

Research has been done to determine what length of time is ideal for the most return on investment when creep feeding. Studies have shown that only creep feeding for 1 month prior to weaning will have no effect on the weaning weights of calves or their postweaning performance. However, creep feeding for 60 – 90 days before weaning has been proven to increase weaning weight and postweaning performance of calves. Ultimately though, 60 days of preweaning creep feeding has been shown to be more economically efficient than 90 days of preweaning creep feeding. Regardless of the length of time on the creep feeder, calves will be ‘bunk broke’ and can be marketed as such. These calves will have less shrinkage at the sale barn and will outperform other calves during the next stage of development.

It is important to take into consideration, how you are planning on marketing your calves, how much time you have, cattle prices/trends, and the cost/availability of feed and forage supplements, when deciding on your creep feeding and/or weaning program. Whichever you chose paired with a processed calf will no doubt set your calves above the rest, allowing them to be successful and improving your bottom dollar.