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Challenges at weaning can have a long-term effect on calf productivity. Therefore, it is critical to have a good transition from the field to the feedlot, so to speak. Chief among the challenges faced when weaning calves is stress.

There are four different stressors on calves: physical, environmental, immunological and — you can argue this point — psychological.

During the weaning process, stressors all become largely intertwined. If we think about the history of beef cattle production, there was a time when it was commonplace to “wean calves on the truck.” In this scenario, calves would be removed from the dam, possibly (hopefully!) vaccinated and processed, weighed, and loaded on a truck to be shipped to the feedlot ... all the same day. That practice has become less common because we know that stress can increase calf morbidity (i.e. animals become susceptible to sickness).

Sickness results in reduced feed intake, then gains are affected and so on. It is a downward spiral.

The good news is that we can manage calves in a way to reduce stress and sickness and improve overall productivity.

Reducing Stress

Physical stress has to do with changes in the calves’ environment as we wean and then ship them or move them to a finishing barn. There is little we can do about the physical location if we have to move those cattle. However, we can control the environment around a calf by introducing feed and water at the home farm and keeping receiving pens distanced from feed sheds or other areas of heavy human traffic. The idea here is to introduce the novel things (the feed and automatic water, for example) while the calf is in a familiar environment — the home farm.

Another practice to help reduce stress is vaccinating and castrating calves on the home farm. If possible, get the booster in at the home farm too. Doing so enables calves to mount a response to those vaccinations in an environment or location that is familiar. The theory here is that calves will mount a better response and thus not be as likely to get sick later in life. The research around this topic is currently a bit more controversial. However, the most controversial topic when we talk about stress is perhaps the psychological stress.

One might argue with me that we are anthropomorphizing the calf by admitting there may be “psychological” stressors on it. However, if we look at the data on two-stage weaning practices, like fence-line weaning or the use of nosers, the reason that those practices evolved is because we noted that calves that were weaned on the home farm, with fence-line or nose-ring weaners, bawled less and walked less when they got to the feedlot. They weren’t looking for mom. This early benefit, at weaning, can have long-term effects on that calf’s productivity. And, the good news is, this particular stressor is quite possibly one of the easiest ones to reduce.

One option to consider is coupling vaccinations with the use of nosers. In this scenario, the vaccinations and/or castrations are done when you bring calves in to put the nosers in initially. This then gives them four to seven days back out with the dam to heal and mount an adequate response to the vaccine, while still decreasing the number of times you have to run calves through the chute.

Two-stage weaning and vaccination/castration cattle prior to sale/weaning are two of the cheapest and easiest management practices to implement. The benefits are so clear that there are now sale barn programs that will pay a “preconditioned” premium for calves that come to the sale vaccinated and weaned for at least 45 days.

The moral of this story is that stress reduces intake and gains of newly weaned calves, whether you are keeping them at the home farm or selling them. There are several management practices we can employ to reduce stressors and improve profitability long term. It is becoming far less common to wean “on the truck.” In fact, recent reports have estimated that only about 50% of calves are being weaned “on the truck.” Over half the cattle in the U.S. now are going through some kind of reduced stress or gentle weaning practice. What will work in your operation?

Tara Felix is a Penn State Extension beef specialist.

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