Weaning spring calves for performance

29 February 2016

The management, handling and feeding of weaners is critical to their performance in later life. Producers should generally aim to wean as early as possible, without compromising overall calf growth rate. The early weaning of calves can also provide substantial benefits to the cows through reduced weight loss during lactation, higher body condition scores and significantly shorter calving intervals.

In more temperate and sub-tropical areas, where calves are typically born in spring to match peak pasture growth during summer, producers will be looking to wean calves in the next few months. As the cooler months approach these producers will need to carefully manage pasture reserves to ensure weaner health and growth is maintained.

From a breeding perspective, the management of heifer weaners in self replacing herds is particularly important. They should be managed separately from the main breeding herd in their first year of calving. Poorly grown heifers will not have optimum fertility levels and their lifetime performance may be reduced.

Investment in good weaner care will also assist in the selection of replacement heifers, as more heifers will have reached target joining weights at puberty.

Determine the weaning age of calves

Maximising the efficiency of weaner throughput is the single biggest driver of the profitability of breeding operations. This must be carefully managed as weaning calves too early can result in death, reduced ability to thrive and reduced throughput of saleable animals, while weaning too late can reduce the fertility of the herd by reducing cow condition score.

The keys to maximising the benefits of weaning age to throughput and productivity are to:

  • identify the time when the efficiency of pasture use will be greater for the calf alone than for the cow and calf together
  • implement a weaning strategy that ensures that calf growth is maintained.

The weaning strategy should consider:

  • minimum age: 100 days from when the last calf was born
  • maximum age: Six months old depending on the season and quality of available pasture
  • minimum weight: The youngest calf in the group should be at least 100kg
  • when cow condition score reaches 2.5 (if weaning is too late and results in a loss in cow condition score, fertility may be reduced at the subsequent joining).

Weaner pastures

Weaning needs to be carefully managed to avoid any checks in the post-weaning growth and the productive performance of weaners.

Depending on the month and seasonal conditions at weaning, the liveweight of weaner cattle may be maintained until feed conditions improve or they can be weaned onto high quality pasture for rapid growth rates.

If high quality pastures are not available at weaning and weight gain is desired, consider providing a feed supplement to boost or supplement the nutritional quality of the pasture.

Where weaner growth has been restricted due to limited nutrition, compensatory growth can allow the weaner to achieve higher than average growth rates when nutrition becomes available to achieve the same weight for age as unrestricted animals.

Yard weaning calves

Yard weaning is a simple and effective procedure that has lasting implications for lifting cattle productivity. Yard weaning generally delivers quieter cattle that adapt more easily to supplement feeding. The benefits of yard weaning are fully realised if cattle later go on to feedlots.

Advantages of yard weaning cattle according to best practice, include:

  • cattle that start gaining weight sooner in the feedlot
  • lower livestock health costs due to less sickness in the feedlot
  • fewer deaths and sub-clinical respiratory disease in the feedlot
  • a higher proportion of finished stock making the higher priced target market
  • higher growth rates which reduces the time to finish cattle with big feed cost savings and increases throughput per annum for the feedlot
  • faster turn-off times (leading to earlier payments)
  • a negotiated premium for your superior feeder cattle.

Weaner health

When managing weaner health, producers should consider the following:

  • implementation of an integrated parasite treatment and prevention program based on monitoring faecal egg counts of young stock in conjunction with other key indicators such as growth rates
  • Coccidiosis is a major threat to weaners under nutritional stress
  • all weaners should receive immunisation for botulism at weaning
  • Vitamin A and E deficiencies can occur in prolonged drought situations where cattle do not have any access to green pick. Vitamin A and E deficiencies are treated by an intramuscular injection of a Vitamin A, D and E supplement
  • provision of a clean water supply
  • provision of good quality feed appropriate to the stage of development of the animal's digestive system taking care when grain is included in the diet to avoid sickness caused by grain engorgement
  • feeding hay in racks to avoid contamination from dirt and dung, which may contain parasite eggs.

Further information

Information on early weaning calves in southern Australia is available in Module 6: Weaner throughput

The MLA Tips & Tools: Yard weaning methods for preparing feeder cattle provides information on yard weaning cattle

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