Management Strategies to Reduce Stress at Weaning and Improve Calf Performance

September 2014

photo of cow with calf in pasture
Stress is the number one issue that impacts calf performance at weaning. Photo courtesy of Aaron Berger.

This is the time of year when many cow-calf producers are weaning calves. The following are some important factors and strategies to remember when planning to wean calves.

Stress is the number one issue that impacts calf performance at weaning. Calves are being removed from their dams and a herd social structure in which they were comfortable. Plus, the calves are often being moved into a different environment with new feed and water sources. As one rancher once put it, it is kind of like putting a bunch of junior high kids into a hotel room by themselves without a chaperone and telling them to figure life out!

The following are things which can be done to reduce stress at weaning, helping calves stay healthy, and adjust to their new environment.

Have a good herd health program plan

Having a good herd health program plan can help to reduce sickness at weaning, improve the treatment response of those calves that do get sick, and increase the overall performance of calves during weaning. Work with your veterinarian to plan vaccination strategies and treatment protocols.

In certain parts of the country, strategic mineral supplementation when the calves are with their dams prior to weaning may be beneficial for getting good immune response. Minerals such as copper, zinc, cobalt, and manganese are important to immune system function. A lack of these minerals in feed sources or high levels of other minerals, such as sulfur which can inhibit absorption of minerals, can impact immune response.

Introduce new feeds while with dams

Introducing new feeds to calves while they are with their dams prior to weaning can help calves start on feed more quickly when they are weaned. Feedstuffs should be palatable with minimal fines and dust. Feeds should be evaluated to determine if they have adequate levels of protein and energy to meet desired performance goals.

Consider a two-step weaning process

Fence-line weaning calves or placing nose weaners into calves 4-7 days before removal from their dams are a couple of methods to accomplish this. Both of these methods prevent the calves from nursing while still giving the calf social contact with its dam. This gradual process appears to help the calves forget about nursing and begin the transition to being on their own and part of a new herd.

Ideally, fence-line weaning should be in an environment that

  • allows both cows and calves to spread out along the fence,
  • has minimal dust present, and
  • provides feed and water resources for the calves that are familiar and close to the fence.

A number of studies have shown calves that were fence-line weaned have lower incidents of sickness compared to their contemporaries that were hard weaned and immediately separated from visual and audio contact with their dams. Some studies have shown a significant increase in average daily gain and total weight gain for calves that were fenceline weaned when compared to their hard weaned contemporaries.

For research information about fence-line weaning, please see the following sources.

Aaron Berger, UNL Extension Educator
Panhandle Research and Extension Center
University of Nebraska–Lincoln