by: Ted G. Dyer
University of Georgia, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef Cattle

When using the recommended 60-day or less breeding season, all calves in the herd should be weaned at the same time. Under this management, weaning, or removal of the calf from the cow and terminating lactation, should occur when the calf is approximately seven to eight months of age. With extended calving seasons, longer than three months, or split calving seasons in spring and fall, the process may require weaning in at least two groups. Special circumstances may require early weaning between two months and eight months of age. When grass gets short and milk production goes down, it may be advantageous to wean the calves early.

Weaning can be a very stressful time in the life of a calf due to the significant change in the animal's physiological processes. Prolonged stress can impair the body's immune system, causing a reduced resistance to disease. Stressful conditions in animals should be minimized within economic constraints.

Below are some suggestions for reducing stress at weamng:

Early preparation comes several months before the cows and calves are actually separated. Calves should be processed (vaccinated, wormed, castrated, dehorned, identified, etc.) prior to weaning.

On weaning day, move cows and calves into sorting alley, corral or small lot. Sort cows from calves. Do not try to sort calves from cows. Place cows near calves during weaning so they can see and hear calves -- usually just a fence line apart. Placing them farther apart will often cause problems such as going through and over fences to get together. Shortly after weaning, all calves should be weighed and recorded so that accurate production records can be kept.

Place calves in a small lot or pasture equipped with sturdy fences and gates, a feed bunk, water trough, hay in a hayrack and shade area. Place feed bunks and water along the fence-line where the calves will be walking. This will help the nervous calves locate the feed and water as rapidly as possible.

Offer calves hay immediately after they are weaned. Free-choice access to good-quality hay is important the first several days during weaning. Avoid using spoiled or moldy hay. Start feeding a mixed ration such as medicated starter ration -- usually grain or commodity-based -- in the feed bunk. Do not over-feed: Start at one to two pounds per head twice a day and gradually increase the amount of the ration over the next 10 to 14 days until the calves are eating around 1.5 percent of their body weight in feed. It is recommended to pre-condition the calves for a minimum of 45 days; however, 60 to 90 days would be best if you are planning to retain ownership of the calves after shipping them to a feedlot.

Weaning period. Usually this period should only be three to seven days. Bawling will begin to subside after the first day and animals will be back to normal in two to five days. Additional booster vaccinations can be given at the end of the weaning period prior to turning calves out into a larger pasture.

Observe cows and calves after weaning. Cows may show some udder swelling the week after weaning. This is normal. Beef cows generally do not milk very heavily after a lactation period of seven to eight months and they will dry up in seven to 14 days. Calves should be observed closely during and after weaning, three to six times a day. Check for droopy ears, runny noses and coughing. The stress of weaning often precipitates a respiratory infection. Part of this is caused by throat and lung irritation during the bawling period. If there are any signs of sickness, sort the sick calves out of the group and take their temperatures. Body temperature is taken rectally. Normal temperature for cattle is 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The animal's temperature is a measure of how sick it is. Consult your veterinarian for treatment and medication needed. Evaluating the animals' vital signs and visually observing their appearance can identify health problems in their early stages. This will allow for early treatment, which usually prevents further serious issues.

Minimizing stress at or near weaning can pay big dividends; however, you must stay in contact with these animals during this critical time. Remember to stay prepared and be ready to respond to stress issues during the weaning period.

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