ON A WINNER WITH WEANING DONE WELL
For calves, weaning is one of the most stressful processes in the Beef Cattle production system and therefore doing it right is critical. Stress has a very significant effect on the health and production of calves. The goals from the weaning process are:
- calves with a quiet temperament accustomed to being handled and confined with minimal stress;
- calves that are gaining weight and
- calves with robust immune systems.
Early weaning is a part of many producers Drought Management Plan and is a process that many producers have already put in place. If done effectively Early Weaning outcomes are favourable with an increase in production through improved breeder reproductive performance, better allocation of feed resources and more opportunistic trading.
Ideally calves should be older than 3 months and greater than 80-100kg. Weaning calves that are younger and lighter than this results in greater calf deaths and reduces the ability to thrive. Once the calf reaches 3 months and 100kg it becomes more efficient to feed the calf separate to the cow, as once weaned, the maintenance requirement for the cow almost halves and it becomes much easier to maintain the body condition score of the cows. (E.g. a cow calf unit will require approximately 130MJ ME/Day compared to a dry cow 70MJ ME/day and 100KG growing calf 30-45MJ ME/day.) Cows with a Body Condition Score greater than 2.5 are far more likely to go back in calf leading to a shorter calving interval, a measure of reproductive performance and a key profit driver. Lesser quality, more fibrous feed can be used to maintain a dry cow, keeping for the weaners the more energy and protein dense feed stuffs that are often difficult to get and expensive in a drought.
The key areas of an effective weaning process;
- Yard weaning/Facilities/Labour
Yard weaning is an opportunity for learning that sets calves up for life, reducing their stress for future husbandry processes; transport and handling. Yard weaning is usually carried out over a 5-10-day period, in this time calves become accustomed to eating from a feeder/bunk, drinking from a trough, and being worked through the yards ideally calmly to reduce negative experiences.
As with most things' preparation is paramount to a good outcome. Some things to consider before weaning starts:
- ensure availability and have on hand a suitable High Protein weaner diet (there can be a significant wait for commercial weaner pellets). if we are weaning calves that are on average 150kg they will need approximately 25kg/head of concentrate and about the same weight in good quality cereal hay for a 10day period.
- ensure there is enough vaccine and drench on hand
- prepare the weaning facility ensure it is weaner proof, it is clean i.e. no faeces built up, not boggy, ensure there are no weeds or generally overgrown, slashing maybe necessary to avoid plant toxicities, reduce dust by watering if possible, fix and clean troughs etc.
- ensure there is the labour available to attend to the weaners daily.
In larger operations or those with a more spread calving pattern, batch weaning is likely to be necessary. If possible, keep calves together from there calving group/paddock and avoid adding calves to a larger group. Keeping calves in the same group or minimising the different backgrounds of the group reduces stress and the exposure to new diseases.
Weaner pen size should be kept to under 100 head, this allows for a stable social structure to form and stress is again reduced.
If larger groups are being divided into smaller groups for weaning, drafting should be done on weight to help avoid bigger calves bullying smaller calves away from feed etc. If possible, identify and segregate shy feeders.
It is important to provide enough yard, bunk and water trough space, insufficient will greatly increase stress in the smaller shyer cattle. A suitable size yard should allow for at least 2.5m2/head, at least 3cm/head of water trough space and plenty of bunk space with continual access to forages and concentrates.
Feeders or troughs/bunks are recommended to reduce the chances of faecal contamination of feed. Clean, good quality water is also vital with regular trough cleaning required.
Nutrition Nutrition Nutrition
Good nutrition in weaners is critical to developing a healthy rumen which can have long term affects on productivity. Weaners require high energy density from readily fermentable carbohydrate as well as high protein density. The diet should contain a minimum 11.5MJ ME/kg DM and 16-18% crude protein with two thirds of the protein as true protein as opposed to Non protein nitrogen like urea. An example of a suitable diet maybe good quality cereal hay (not Straw) along with a high protein weaner pellet, however there are many options and diets will depend on cost and availability of commodities. When comparing cost of a ration or a commodity it is important to compare "Apples with Apples". Not all proteins are equal and rather than looking at $/kg perhaps better to look at $/MJ ME. Total mixed rations are ideal however not always possible. It is crucial that which ever commodities you can get hold of to ensure that it is meeting the minimum requirements. Feed analysis and ration design by a ruminant nutritionist is advisable.
Clean, fresh, good quality water is crucial. Troughs should be cleaned very regularly.
Vaccination with 5 in 1 or 7 in 1 at weaning is crucial. Cattle on highly fermentable feeds are very susceptible to clostridial diseases especially enterotoxaemia (pulpy kidney). It is vital the calves receive 2 vaccinations 4 to 6 weeks apart, when on highly fermentable feeds a further vaccination every 6 months is recommended, otherwise annually is required. This vaccination regime ensures weaners immunity remains at a protective level, falling short on boosters will leave weaners immunity levels falling to below a protective level and at risk of disease.
Parasite control is important in promoting optimal weaner health as internal parasites can reduce growth rates by 20%. Weaners are far more susceptible to gastrointestinal worm burdens and drenching is likely to be necessary. A Faecal Egg Count (FEC) with larval culture can be very useful in determining the need for drenching and in drench choice. An Ionophore for example Bovatec® should be added to the feed as a coccidiostat to prevent coccidiosis. Most commercial weaner concentrate feeds will contain an Ionophore.
Pink eye and Respiratory diseases are common in weaners and should be monitored for closely. Consult your veterinarian on appropriate treatment and management solutions.
Vitamins and minerals are vitally important to the health and immune status of weaners. Most balance diets will provide these at necessary levels. Vitamin ADE may be necessary if the calves have had no access to green feed over the last 3-4 months. Trace minerals should be provided through the diet if using a commercial weaner diet or can be added to home mixes. Multimin injection can be used if a trace mineral deficiency is known. Multimin can support immune function.
All husbandry procedures like castration and dehorning that cause additional stress and pain should be done prior to weaning (for example, at branding) and if not, should be left until after the weaning process is completed. In Southern Queensland it is important to consider ensuring this is done prior to 6 months of age. Consult your veterinarian on available pain relief options.
1. Cusack, Paul. Beef Production Medicine Course Notes (2019), Sydney, the university of Sydney Centre for Veterinary Education.