A Three-Step Approach to Successful Weaning

Some of life’s most challenging lessons come from young living beings. Think back to your young ‘un waving good-bye to you on his or her first day of school from the partially-opened windows of a shiny, yellow school bus. Or, reflect on the weaning time, and the sounds from crying pens of calves that are freshly weaned and missing their mamas during those first few days. Both scenarios remind us of the importance of a parent to a child, and when it comes to weaning those calves you want to provide as much comfort and as little stress as possible.

Weaning is a critical time in young calves’ lives. Until weaning, your calves have a readily available food source by their side, that also acted as a protector and a face washer. As young calves often do, they mimicked the mama cows and started eating grass, drinking water and eating the mineral supplement that was out for the cows. Then one day, the producer gathers pairs and sorts the cows from the calves, and at just 6 or 7-months of age, the calves are weaned and have to learn survival on their own.

At weaning, calves are faced with several immediate changes: environment, herd groups and nutritional intake, all while being separated from their mother. And while weaning can be very stressful to the calves, the same period can also be stressful on the producer who strives to keep the calves healthy, eating and growing during this time of transition and setting them up for future potential growth.

John Ridder, Falling Timber Farm, Marthasville, Mo., is a registered Polled Hereford Breeder, whose family has been in the cattle business for more than a century. He said keeping his calves eating and healthy are his two biggest priorities and about seven years ago, his family changed its weaning protocol. He has noticed a big difference since switching their routine. He said the biggest factors are stress reduction, consistency and nutrition.

  1. Reducing StressWith calves already feeling the stress of weaning, Ridder sets up a vaccination schedule, so his calves aren’t compounded by stress with vaccinations on the actual weaning day. He said he typically administers a round of vaccinations when the calves are about 4-months old. Then, he gives another round of shots 2-3 weeks post-weaning, once the calves are accustomed to being separated from the cows.

    “I want healthy cattle before I put added stress into them. I don’t like to double up on stress too much, so we don’t give vaccinations at weaning. We do it prior and after they are weaned. We’ve had great luck with keeping them healthy. We have a lot less sickness doing it this way than we previously did,” Ridder said.

    Any cattle that Ridder sends to the feed yard will receive an additional two rounds of vaccinations, as he feels that transition requires cattle to be in peak health.

  2. Keeping Life ConsistentWhen Ridder and his family wean their calves, they only bring the calves out of the pasture and leave the cows out. But even more exclusive to the operation is that the calves are left in the same groups for 2-3 weeks in the dry-lot area they are weaned in before being sorted and commingled with other calves from the farm.

    “I know that is very unique but that is what we do, and it works pretty well,” he said.

    In an added effort to provide as little disruption to the calves as possible, the creep feeders that are put out with the calves about 45-days pre-weaning, are moved into each lot, so the calves have that consistent nutrition source from a feeder they are used to eating from while they also transition to a bunk.

    “They wean on the same ration as they have been eating on and don’t transition to a silage ration for a couple weeks, so that reduces their stress, too. Any way you can reduce stress and keep them healthy seems logical to us,” Ridder explained.

  3. Vitamins, Minerals and Amaferm®Ridder is sure to provide his calves with Vita Charge® Stress Tubs for the first two weeks that they are weaned to help give them a jump-start on their feed and water intake while helping them recover from stress. The Stress Tubs contain Amaferm, a precision prebiotic research-proven to increase intake, digestion and absorption while supporting the animal’s immune system. The Stress Tubs also contain MOS, to trap and expel pathogens, limiting their ability to do harm, organic Zinc, the antioxidant Vitamin E and B vitamins.

    “When we use Stress Tubs, the calves lick on those and keep on going. We also put the Stress Tubs out anytime we break with sickness and it will help clear up problems,” Ridder said.

    In addition to the Stress Tubs, Falling Timber Farm also feeds the VitaFerm® Gain Smart® Stocker mineral to its weaned calves to make sure they receive a complete vitamin and mineral package while still getting the Amaferm advantage.

    The Ridders wean a majority of their herd in the fall, as two-thirds of the cows are spring-calvers. However, regardless of weaning season, they follow the same protocol to make sure their calves stay healthy, keep eating and experience as little stress as possible.

    “This is the only way we wean now. It’s a routine,” Ridder said. 

Raising kids and calves is a lot of trial and error; neither come with an instruction manual. However, for a progressive cattle producer like Falling Timber Farm that has been in the business for more than 100 years, trying new techniques to keep their calves healthy and performing has helped them find success at weaning time.

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