Tips and tricks for effective yard weaning of cattle

26 November 2015

With buyers prepared to pay a premium at the summer weaner sales for yard-weaned calves, a few simple weaning techniques can pay dividends for cattle producers, according to feedlot veterinarian Lachlan Strohfeldt of Bell Veterinary Services, Queensland

Herefords Australia, with support from MLA's More Beef from Pastures and Coopers Animal Health, hosted a weaning acclimation field day at Millicent, South Australia, recently with Lachlan as the guest speaker.

Lachlan said best practice weaning techniques could result in post weaning daily weight gains of 0.5-0.7kg.

Calves should be weaned at a set time or in tougher seasons as soon as  cow body condition starts to declines. In poor seasons, calves may be weaned down to a minimum of 100kg liveweight.

“Good handling techniques on-farm in an animal’s first six months of life will be with that animal for life,’’ Lachlan said.

“If we wean 1,500 animals in a year and they are all gaining 0.5kg a day during the yard weaning process, that equates to 750kg of beef a day or 3,750kg after five days of weaning – a truly solid return on investment for some basic TLC.’

“We wean cattle to manage herd fertility, land condition and ensure farm sustainability.’’

Lachlan said calves often suffered from confinement anxiety on the first few days of weaning.

“Up until that point, rarely have the calves been locked inside four fences where the pressure is so intense.

“We are able to reduce that level of stress with intensive handling techniques.’

“Educated cattle complete the weaner process faster, giving a more positive result in the end.

“The yard weaning process has a lasting effect on the life of the individual animal in the breeding herd too, especially in females where fertility and puberty are driven by body weight."

The basics

Lachlan said educated weaners responded to the handler’s body position, pressure and timing (far better than animals that have received no acclimation to yards.)

He recommended allowing 2.5m² /animal for 200kg liveweight calves in weaning yards, with the space requirement increasing with higher liveweights.

“This gives the cattle enough room to display their natural behaviours,’’ he said.

“A good weaning yard has strong panels with not a lot of gap between rails – rubber belting around the sides will keep the smaller calves in.’’

A supply of fresh water and quality hay is not only critical to achieving post weaning growth and production performance but the hay can be used to reinforce daily positive achievements.

Holding paddocks are ideal for working the weaners as a herd each day of the weaning process.

Once weaners leave the holding paddocks, pasture quality should be a minimum of 11.5 megajoules of energy and 15% protein to sustain growth rates.

Animal health

“When it comes to clostridial (5 in 1 or 7 in 1) vaccination, ideally the first dose should be given three weeks before weaning as the stress of vaccination can be ameliorated while the calf is on its mother, followed by a booster shot four to six weeks apart,’’ Lachlan said.

He urged producers to vaccinate with Bovilis MH + IBR at weaning to reduce the effects of Bovine Respiratory Disease in commercial herds both on farm and later in life as they enter the feedlot production system.

Some feedlots are paying suppliers up to $8/head to vaccinate weaners with Bovilis MH + IBR or supplying the vaccine directly to the producer.

At the beginning

When handling weaners in the yard on day one, Lachlan recommended initiating movement from the front of the herd, using the natural instincts of the lead animal.

“When the lead animal licks its lips, it is accepting pressure and will go wherever you want it to move,’’ he said.

“Place pressure on the animal by taking a step towards it to initiate movement – if the animal steps backwards, take a step back and release the pressure. The aim is to initiate voluntary motion amongst the group – let them decide on where they want to go and control their movement to that point.

“Move the mob from corner to corner in the yard until they move as a herd.

“Work with the lead animal to control pace by working on your body position relative to theirs. Walk against the animals to speed them up, but walk with them to slow them down.

“As soon as the lead animal walks off, encourage the rest of the herd to follow in an orderly fashion. Each time the herd should be less disjointed.

“Handlers need to constantly read the cattle and observe what they are telling us.

“If the cattle have their heads up, it means they are stressed or uncomfortable. An animal that chews and walks away from pressure calmly is comfortable with the situation.

“Do not spend any more than 30 minutes each day working them in this way – if you cannot control the situation, ask yourself why and do not blame the cattle.’’

Ongoing

On the second and third day, introduce the calves to walking through gateways and on day four, open the crush and allow them to walk through quietly without anything touching them.

“By the end of the weaning process, the cattle must display discipline by being quiet, walking in a straight line and having brakes,’’ Lachlan said.

“Once a mob reaches over 200 head, it is advised to use two people in the preconditioning process.’’

The length of the yard weaning process is decided by the response of the cattle. When animals stop bellowing, eat well, walk straight and have been taught how to stop, we are able to stop.

Typically, the process should take between two and seven days.

Top tips for yard weaning:

    • Allow plenty of time to work with the weaners from day one – don’t set unreasonable time restraints on yourself.
    • Initiate movement from the front of the herd, not from behind the cattle.
    • Be positioned where the cattle can see you and where they can also see where you want them to go.
    • The instinct of cattle is to always come back to where they came from – use this to move the herd.
    • On day one, simply try to get the cattle to move from corner to corner until they start moving as a herd.
    • Work with the lead animal to control the pace of the herd – walk along with him to control his speed.
    • Walk against the cattle to speed them up, walk with them to slow them down.
    • Spend 10-30 minutes each day moving them as a herd through the yards then reward them with quality hay.
    • On days two and three, educate the calves to walk through gateways.
    • On day four, allow the calves to walk quietly through the open crush and feed out into pasture.

    More information: Lachlan Strohfeldt E: lachlan@bellvetservices.com.au

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