Source: Michigan State University Extension, Kevin Gould and Jerad Jaborek
Ask two or more beef cattle veterinarians about weaning beef calf management, also referred to as preconditioning, and you are bound to get different recommendations for protocols to follow. This does not mean one is right or wrong, it just means there are several options to accomplish the same goals. Recommendations may vary due to calf age, labor, nutrition, facilities, environment, pathogen risk, marketing plans, etc.
Regardless of the approach, the main goal should always be a low-stress weaning and preconditioning protocol that prepares calves for targeted growth and health through the next phases of production.
As you plan for weaning, the first step is to meet the nutritional requirement of the calf at weaning. Milk is rich in protein and energy and is estimated to be about 30% of the dry matter intake of a calf from 6 to 7 months of age. Filling the void left from nursing should be done with high quality forages and/or concentrate supplements with an elevated protein level the first two weeks post-weaning. Additional protein is needed when the dry matter intake of calves is reduced from weaning stress, generally lasting 7 to 14 days.
The second step should be planning a weaning location. Fenceline weaning is a great choice that allows calves to be maintained on high quality pasture directly across the fence from the dams. This will minimize the weaning stress by maintaining the social bond through the first 7 to 10 days after weaning. It also maintains a familiar environment and feedstuffs for the calf during a stressful time. After day 7, the cows can be moved away to remote pastures.
Finally, during weaning, familiar water and mineral/vitamin source is critical to assure all calves have access. Creep feeding calves for a minimum of two weeks prior to weaning will increase bunk familiarity and increase supplement intake during weaning. Locate supplement in bunks near the weaning fence so calves can easily find them and start consuming supplement quickly.
Preconditioning practices including vaccinations are extremely valuable. In general, initial vaccinations should not be given less than 14 days before or less than 8 days after weaning, because stress at the time of weaning may greatly reduce vaccine efficacy. From days 1 to 7 post weaning, calf stress and cortisol level are significantly elevated, so this is a time to avoid vaccinations as elevated cortisol will reduce the calf’s immune response to vaccines. To achieve desired immune vaccine response, be sure to follow label guidelines. Always observe calves daily during the weaning phase to evaluate health status and dry matter feed intake.
Avoid other stressful processing tasks like castration and dehorning at vaccination time. Castration is always less stressful when done earlier in life. Horned calves are less common today with the use polled bulls in the industry but when dehorning is necessary, it should be done a minimum of two weeks ahead of weaning to avoid stacking stressful events and provides adequate time for healing before vaccinations.
Deworming and implanting are often added at weaning time. Again, whenever possible, consider these practices for your calves 60 to 90 days ahead of weaning. Prevention of parasite loads before weaning will likely improve the calf’s immune response, and deworming and implanting will each give a boost to post-weaning growth.
Minimizing stress before, during and after weaning will help ensure preconditioning management that will generate added health and value to your calf crop through all production phases. If you have questions, please reach out to your Michigan State University Extension beef experts, including the authors of this article, Kevin or Jerad. We would be happy to help provide you with more information about calf preconditioning programs to fit your goals. Producers should document all preconditioning practices and consider enrolling your calves in the Michigan Cattlemen’s Association STAMP Verification Program, a free service to all members.