Weaning and educating calves

Correct training of calves at weaning means easier animals to work with

Weaning is far more than separating the calf from the cow until they both stop bellowing. Correct management and training of calves at weaning sets their pattern of behaviour for the rest of their lives.

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. Broken weldmesh in round bale feeders can catch calves’ hooves. There is nothing worse than finding a good calf crippled because he spent the night with a leg caught in the hay feeder.

At weaning

Muster your cows and calves. After doing whatever is needed to 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 another yard while you fill the hay racks. This teaches the calves to walk through gateways and move at your direction. 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 stand by to slow them up if they start to run. Work them around the paddock, letting them graze as you do this. 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 by stray dogs or dingoes. Yard the weaners for three or four days until they just walk along in front of the bike or horse. 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. 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.


All calves in ticky country should be vaccinated against tick fever at weaning. Once you know how many weaners you have, order the 3–germ blood. Give the weaners their second 5–in–1 (or 7–in–1) vaccination. If they haven’t had any 5–in–1 vaccinations, give them their first injection and the second 4 to 6 weeks later. The stress of weaning tends to lower the calves’ defences, making them more susceptible to internal parasites. If you suspect internal parasites are a problem, test for worm burdens in the calves and drench if appropriate.

Coccidiosis is caused by organisms that live in the calves’ gut and on the ground. The stress of weaning often allows these parasites to multiply and cause problems. The most common symptom is scouring and general ill health. In severe cases the calf can die. Animals less severely affected take a long time to recover because the organism damages the lining of the gut. Feeding calves in racks and troughs will help prevent them picking up the coccidian organism from the ground.


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. 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’.

This article was originally printed in Beeftalk (a special feature in the Queensland Country Life) Issue 39 Winter 2014 on 31 July 2014 and contributed by Carli McConnel, Mt Brisbane, Esk Telephone: (07) 5426 0169 or email: carlimcconnel@westnet.com.au