Weaning calves

(Producer Questions prior to 2009)

What is the earliest age that I can wean calves?

There are data that indicates that beef calves can be successfully weaned from their dams when they are 45 days old. So when the youngest calf is between 45 to 60 days old, you could consider weaning them from their dams. It is important that waters and feed bunks are at a level that calves of this age can easily access them. Also, consult your veterinarian as to herd health strategies. Calves at this young age are still responding to passive immunity that they received through colostrum. Your vet will help you with this component. Diets fed to early weaned calves must be comprised of high quality feeds that are highly digested. These calves have a small rumen and to keep them growing at an acceptable rate, the diets need to be well designed. Also, these diets need to be high quality, dust free, and particle size needs to be uniform so that calves cannot sort the rations.

If you are a seed stock producer, contact your breed association as to the earliest date that calves can be weaned and their data not be compromised.

Should calves be weaned earlier on first-calf-females?

Good question. The answer, I think, is "it depends". If first-calf females have access to an abundant amount of forage and appear to be in adequate body condition, then weaning calves from this group of females ahead of the time that you would wean calves from the rest of the herd is likely not necessary. If the amount of forage is not adequate (drought conditions) and/or quality of the forage is low when these young females are still in a part of their lactation curve where they are producing a lot of milk, then early wean calves from this group of females would allow them not to get in poor body condition or if they have, you could regain body condition without much supplementation.

That being said, I know of producers with spring-calving herds that routinely wean calves from first calf- females ahead of the mature cow herd. Body condition at calving has the greatest impact on reproductive performance the next breeding season. By weaning calves (calves 160 to 180 days of age) early the nutrient needs of these females decreases a bunch and they are able to graze themselves into good body condition before calving and reproductive performance is really good for these females the following spring/summer.

If you early wean these calves, you will need to retain them to get weight of them. They will be light and although price per pound is high, usually dollars generated is not enough to cover cow costs. Make sure that you can supply the early weaned calves with a diet that will allow them to continue to gain about 2 lb/day. Also, work with your veterinarian on a vaccination program for these calves.

If I were to wean calves at 2 months old, would I have to keep them out of sight of the mother or is it better to keep them in a fenced area in sight of the mother?

I don't think it matters, but I would do some training and management before weaning. First, work with your veterinarian on a health program. Second, before weaning, expose calves to feed. We know that the sooner calves consume feed after weaning, the lower the morbidity and mortality. This may mean that two to three weeks before weaning, start calves on a creep feed or offer cows a couple pounds of cubes three to four times a week. Calves will learn to eat alongside their mothers and then when they are weaned, considered starting them on a pelleted ration for the first 14 to 21 days.

Instead of weaning the calves to a dusty lot, maybe fence-line wean the calves in a pasture. Train the cows and calves to an electric fence and have the fence separating two adjacent pastures. Have enough straight fence-line that, when separated, calves can stand across the electric fence from their dams. The first day, calves and cows will stay at the fence, after four days, they both will be content in their pastures. Continue to feed the calves or have the creep feeders available for them. You might want a "baby-sitter" cow to remain with the calves for two to three weeks.

We are thinking of weaning calves at 3 to 4 months of age. We calve April first for 65 days. My question is if a cow is lactating heavily with good grass and we wean the calves will it hurt the cow udder for next year? Will we have to give the cow anything or take her off grass to dry her up?

I talked with Dr. Dan Faulkner who has conducted a number of early weaning trials. He indicated that they have "dried" up early weaned females on pasture or in a dry lot and both have worked fine. He also indicated that they have not documented any negative relationship between early weaning and udder quality or subsequent milk production, although he did indicate that the udder got quite full while females were drying up. I think in his work they early weaned calves as early as 65 days post-calving.

Peak milk production would occur at 70 to 80 days post-calving. I do think, but I have no data to support this comment, but if you weaned calves around the time of peak milk production and if cows had a high potential to milk and teat and udder quality of the females was already less than average, then this might further cause a decline in udder quality.

Getting ready to wean. Is it better to vaccinate with a KV and leave the calves on the cows and then pull them off in 2 to 3 weeks and revaccinate with MLV or pull them off and vaccinate with a MLV and then revaccinate?

The concern about using modified-live virus (MLV) vaccines in pre?weaned calves is that pregnant cows (the dams of these calves) might abort following exposure to the vaccine virus. This very rarely happens and many thousands of calves receive MLV vaccine prior to weaning without adverse effect to the cow herd. Vaccinating cows prior to breeding, using the same product, further minimizes this risk. However, vaccine manufacturers often warn of the possibility of problems on the label - and if they don't want to assume any liability, then I don't either - so follow the label directions.

The period of viral shedding following MLV vaccination could be many days, so removing the calves from the cow herd on the day of vaccination doesn't avoid the problem. If you have concerns about vaccine virus causing problems when you vaccinate calves prior to weaning then use killed virus vaccines. Consult your veterinarian.