Weaning – a critical component of herd management

Felicity Hamlyn-Hill
Formerly Queensland Government

Benefits of weaning

The major benefits of good weaning management are improved reproductive performance of the breeder herd. Weaning at an optimum time results in better cow condition, more conceptions during lactation, more calves the year after, and higher steer sales in the future. Good weaning management is a critical component of a successful management program.

Weaning is critical in managing the period of time a cow lactates and this in turn impacts on body condition. Body condition of breeders at the end of the dry season is an important factor influencing fertility and mortality, and also weaner weights. The key objective is to keep breeders in moderate or store condition (i.e. score 3 out of 5) or better at the end of the dry season, by reducing the amount of body condition lost during the dry season. If a cow is in poor body condition (less than 3) there is a much greater likelihood of a failure to cycle (anoestrus). Weaning removes the stress of lactation and may reduce further loss of body condition as it significantly alters the nutritional requirements of a lactating heifer or cow. The extra energy and protein requirements needed for lactation are removed.

A large amount of research has shown that lactation in itself also suppresses cycling. A cow’s chances of cycling are improved simply because the suckling effect of the calf is removed. It should be noted that research also shows that temporary weaning for 48–72 hours by itself has no significant benefit in increasing conceptions.

Early weaning reduces the need to survival feed large numbers of breeders should this situation arise. This is important where segregation of survival risk cows is not practical. It is cheaper and easier to feed calves than cows with calves at foot for survival, particularly when not all cows in the mob require feeding.

The benefits of good weaning management are well documented. Numerous experiences, trials and demonstrations have shown that if calves weaned at 3 months and older (100+kg) are properly fed and managed they will be as well grown as larger (150+kg) weaners at the end of their first wet season.

Weaning also provides an opportunity for cattle to be trained and educated early in life and this has positive benefits for future handling, management and productivity.

Time of weaning

Managers must time weaning to achieve the best compromise between weaner growth and loss of cow condition. Astute managers start weaning before cows start to ‘slip’, and time weaning rounds to minimise the degree of body condition loss in lactating cows.

Calves from heifers should be weaned first and all calves from heifers should be weaned at the first round. Weaning heifer calves earlier than normal should increase the chances of heifers cycling and conceiving following calving.

When seasonal mating it is very important to wean strategically to manage the body condition of breeders. In some years and in some environments it may be necessary to wean earlier to reduce loss of body condition. If weaning is not carried out at an appropriate time, and is delayed, there is potential to have the majority of breeders in low body condition all at once (and possibly requiring supplementation).

Weaner supplementation

To be successful, weaners must be well managed and properly fed. This is a critical aspect of weaning – for more information see Weaner supplements. With proper management and nutrition, there is no growth disadvantage of small weaned calves compared to their similar unweaned counterparts of the same age. This is because the milk production of most breeders is low during the dry season in northern Australia.

Supplementation should be based on weaner age and weight, which will determine nutrient requirements and intake levels. Pasture quality, feeding out facilities and availability of supplements should also be taken into account. Investigation of reports of weaners not performing well, have all shown that there has been a breakdown associated with the management or the nutrition of the weaners.

Preparation for weaners

Adequate and appropriate weaner feed should be on the property before mustering starts. The supplements, hay, troughs, mixing and feeding out facilities and yards should be organised so that feeding can commence immediately following weaning. Time taken feeding, handling and educating weaners can be a major factor once weaning starts so it is advisable to have the weaner feed organised in advance.

Adequate yard space is required to draft weaners into separate weight groups as necessary.

Once weaners come out of the yard adequate paddock space will be required. There is usually a range in weaner size (and hence the supplements fed), and it is best to have two paddocks. The smaller the calves, the smaller the paddock should be. Weaner paddocks need to be well grassed and spelled for nutritional and animal health reasons.

Weaner management tips

  • The smaller the animal, the higher the nutritional requirement will be. It is easiest to divide calves into groups based on weight and age for targeted supplementation.
  • Once weaners have grown out of their weight category gradually change feed to appropriate supplement over a period of a few days.
  • To reduce stress, have feed and water available in the yards as soon as the weaners are drafted off their mothers.
  • Feed a high quality ration from the first day. Hay alone is not enough for young calves. Good quality hay should be supplied that is weed and mould free.
  • Do not change the amount or type of feed suddenly – ease off and on, to allow the rumen microorganisms to adapt and to reduce stress.
  • Segregating smaller calves from larger calves and feeding separately will help reduce bullying.
  • Ensure adequate trough space (20–30cm/head) to prevent bullying.
  • Make sure all weaners are getting enough to eat – monitor intakes.
  • Very weak or sick calves may need to be segregated and treated as a separate hospital group.
  • For improved hygiene, feed calves in feeders or troughs up off the ground.
  • Ensure plenty of clean water is always available, and some shade.
  • Very small and young calves weaned in winter need to be kept clean, dry and warm. Wind breaks assembled from bales of hay may be needed if cold and windy.
  • Educate weaners calmly and regularly for quieter cattle of the future. For more information see Yard weaning and education.
  • Don’t put small weaners in a large paddock. They do get lost. They need to be checked.
  • Weaner paddocks should be well grassed, securely fenced with watering points and supplement troughs that weaners are introduced to on first arrival.
  • If dingoes are a problem, it pays to run a few mature cows with the weaners until dingoes can be controlled.

Weaner health

The secret behind maintaining healthy small weaners is to reduce all stress. Weaning in itself is stressful and this can compromise the immune system. A compromised immune system can lead to populations of coccidia, which inhabit the intestine, rapidly increasing in number and causing coccidiosis. Coccidiosis is seen as bloody or black scours, indicating there is damage to the intestine. It occurs three to five weeks after the initial onset of stress at weaning. In severe cases, calves may lose weight rapidly and die. Badly affected calves become ‘poor doers’ due to permanent damage of the intestine.

Coccidiosis can be exacerbated if there is additional stress from poor nutrition. The best control of coccidiosis is to ensure adequate feed intake and growth of weaners. Interruption to feed supply can compromise the gut’s immune system precipitating coccidiosis. Management strategies to help prevent coccidiosis include:

  • Supply nutritious feed to satisfy voluntary intake and nutrient requirements from day of weaning.
  • Include Rumensin® (active ingredient monensin) in weaner rations to achieve an intake of 25mg/head/day. Rumensin may also help control an outbreak. Care should be exercised as over-dosing is quite toxic. Note small amounts in horses can be lethal.
  • Provide dry yards with shade and a plentiful supply of clean water.
  • Use troughs that cattle can’t walk through.
  • Rotate weaning yards to reduce the build up of oocytes.
  • Very small grassed enclosures are preferable to dirt yards.

In calves that suffer severe and/or chronic coccidiosis treat individually with Scourban®, a product which includes a coccidiostat, an antibiotic and anti-diarrhoeal powders.

Most weaners will have worms and if the infection is heavy, treatment will be very cost effective. Ill thrift, condition loss, rough coats and green scours are some of the signs of worm burdens. Poor weight gains can be an indicator of sub clinical burdens. If you suspect worms are a problem, check worm burdens in calves and drench if appropriate. Diagnosis by way of worm egg counts is recommended. Seek advice for treatment with relevant anthelmintics and use weaner paddocks which have been spelled.

Inspect weaners regularly for lice and ticks, and treat accordingly. Pasture spelling of weaner paddocks will assist with tick control.

Vaccination for clostridial diseases (‘5 in 1’) should occur at branding and weaning (assuming that these aren’t more than six weeks apart) for maximum protection. Weaners which have not received a ‘5 in 1’ at branding should be vaccinated the day they enter the yards. It is not recommended to give more than two vaccines at once. Tick fever vaccination at the same time as ‘5 in 1’ is not recommended. Weaners should not be vaccinated for tick fever just before trucking as it can induce a vaccine-induced tick fever. A single shot botulism vaccination for juvenile cattle is recommended at branding, or at weaning if missed at branding.

Hygiene is very important when branding and castrating weaners. Ear marking pliers, castrating knives and dehorning equipment should be placed in disinfectant at branding time, in between usage on each weaner. For health reasons do not brand, earmark, castrate or dehorn calves until just before leaving the yards. For more information see Husbandry.

What weight to wean a calf?

The minimum liveweight at which calves are weaned is dependent upon the type of country, seasonal conditions and condition of the cow. For a typical north Queensland property in an average year this weight would be 100kg (or about three months of age). On better country in better seasons optimum weaning weight may be higher. In drought conditions it may be desirable to radical wean (<100kg liveweight) for breeder survival. In north Australia all calves should be weaned down to 100kg at the last muster of the year to prevent weight loss and anoestrus (not cycling) in breeders early in the wet season immediately following.

Conclusions

  • Good weaning practices improve reproductive performance of the breeder herd and should not disadvantage weaners.
  • Reduce the stress on weaners by providing adequate nutrition and segregate smaller calves from larger calves to target supplement and prevent bullying.
  • Calm regular education will set calves up for ease of handling and less stress throughout their lives.
  • Pay attention to weaner health and treat strategically based on expert advice.

The MLA information booklet, ‘Weaner management in northern beef herds’, is recommended reading. This booklet provides further information on managing weaners and also includes six case studies from different districts of north Australia. You can download a copy from Publications | Meat & Livestock Australia, or by phoning MLA on 1800 023 100.


Weaner management in northern beef herds

The recently published ‘Weaner management in northern beef herds’ is a compilation of the latest research, demonstration and practical knowledge available in northern Australia. Join the principal author Russ Tyler as he discusses the best management practices for feeding and educating weaners and weaning young light calves under difficult conditions to reduce mortality and improve breeder fertility. For your convenience, here are the webinar presentation slides.
45:02 minutes published 23 April 2012 by FutureBeefAu.