Yard weaning and education

Lindy Symes
Formerly Queensland Government

Weaning is far more than separating the calf from the cow. It is also the ideal time to expose cattle to the stressors that they will need to handle later in life. Correct management and training/education of calves at weaning sets their pattern of behaviour for the rest of their lives. Making their first experience of handling and husbandry procedures as pleasant as possible reduces the stress experienced throughout their lifetime when similar procedures are carried out. This results in ease of handling and increased growth performance, so is well worth the initial investment in time.

Before weaning

For the first few days after weaning, calves try to get back to their mothers and can manage to do the seemingly impossible. To avoid injuries and escapes, check all equipment ahead of time that will be used at weaning, including yards, hay feeders and water troughs. It is best to assume a ‘belt and braces’ approach. Calves get bored and will often manage to open a catch by playing with it, so put another chain or wire around gate catches.

At weaning

Muster your cows and calves. After processing the cows, such as pregnancy testing and vaccinating, let them out into a paddock close to the yards with access to a larger grass paddock. Cows find weaning very stressful too. Many cows will break fences and jump grids to get back to their calves if they are moved too far apart on the first day of weaning. After three to five days the cows will have forgotten about their calves and will be much easier to move further out.

Make sure the water troughs are clean and the hay feeders full before putting the first of the calves into the weaning yard. Then leave them overnight. There will be a lot of bellowing from both the cows and the calves, but this is quite normal.

Training begins

For the first two days, spend time walking quietly through the calves. Move them slowly and calmly into other yards whilst you fill the hay racks. This teaches the calves to walk through gateways and move at your direction and familiarises them with human interaction. Having a few quiet trained older animals with the weaners is a good way of helping settle them down more quickly and provides a lead for fresh weaners to follow.

On the third day, run the calves into the working yards and teach them to draft and walk up the race. Do this by letting ten or so go past and stopping the rest. Work the first group of ten through the race and crush without stopping them. Then go back and get another group. By doing this, even the most nervous calves will learn what is required of them. Do this every day as you fill the hay racks.

Weaning is a good time to teach weaners to eat from a trough. While they are locked in the yard and bored, they will try new things they wouldn’t touch in the paddock.

Once the calves work well through the yards it is time to take them out and introduce them to whatever you use on your property, such as dogs, horses and bikes. Open the gates from the yards and work the lead to slow them up if they start to run. If they exit the yards at a trot or gallop, yard them back up and let them out again. Do this until they have learnt to walk calmly out of the yard. They need to learn that you set the pace, not them. Work them around the paddock, letting them graze as you do this. This makes them more manageable for future musters, and teaches them to settle and graze when moved to new paddocks. A laneway is ideal for this work but any small well-fenced paddock will do.

Once you are happy with the way they are working while you are handling them, let them have the full day out in the paddock and just yard them at night. Weaners will often rush at night when they can be frightened. Yard the weaners overnight for three or four days and let them out in the paddock during the day.

Then they can go out into another paddock to grow up. Running some older steers with weaners in the paddock will help settle the weaners down and also help protect them from dog attacks and can also have some immunity benefits for the weaners.

While working the weaners, make a note of any calves that do not settle down. If a calf does not respond to the constant handling at weaning, it will always be difficult to handle and should be identified for culling.

For more information see Weaning.

Benefits

The time and cost put into training weaners is recouped many times over as the animals grow and enter the adult herd. Well-trained weaners are a pleasure to work with, whereas cattle that have not been trained well at weaning cause many problems.

Research by the Cooperative Research Centre for Beef Genetic Technologies on the effects of yard weaning, vaccination, and yard training on subsequent feedlot performance has reaffirmed the benefits of good weaning management. Good yard weaning also promotes cattle that go onto feed faster in feedlots, have less illness, perform better and give more tender beef. Cattle weaned in the yards onto hay or silage for 5 to 10 days adapted, ate sooner from the bunk, performed better and had less illness in the feedlot than those weaned in the paddock. In one trial yard weaned cattle grew 28% faster over a 78-day feeding period, giving approximately a $25 advantage.

If you buy in cattle, particularly cattle that you don’t know, try giving them a few days ‘weaner training’ before you let them out. Steers going into the finishing paddock and replacement heifers that are to go into the breeder herd will all benefit from a few days ‘re-education’.

For further information contact your local beef extension officer.

Reference ‘Producing and processing quality beef from Australian cattle herds – Industry outcomes of the Cooperative Research Centre for the Cattle and Beef Industry (Meat Quality) 1993–2000’. P. Dundon, B. Sundstrom, R. Gaden.