Weaning Calves: Avoid These 3 Common Pitfalls

Management : Weaned Calf

Chris Forcherio, Ph.D.

Beef Research Manager

Have you defined what success and failure look like when weaning calves?

Success might look like live, healthy calves who put on weight with minimal intervention. On the flip side, failure may be calf mortality, sick or stressed calves, a high rate of treatment and less weight to sell. No matter your definitions, having a plan in place can help you avoid weaning pitfalls and, ultimately, failure during this critical time frame.

Make plans now to avoid these 3 pitfalls when weaning calves:

Pitfall #1: No plan for when to wean calves

Too often, we just go out and wean. We find a break in the weather and decide it’s time. The ‘just do it’ mentality may work out, but much like you plan for breeding and calving every year, you should plan when to wean calves.

Develop a flexible plan at least a month in advance. Planning ahead a month gives you time to order feed, work on your health program, order vaccines and more. Part of your health program may include pre-weaning vaccines that can be administered well in advance of weaning day to boost immunity.

Pitfall #2: Facility failure

Prepare facilities for calves trying to get back to their mothers. If calves are in a fenced area, check and reinforce fences as needed to prevent calves escaping. For corral areas, be sure gates are secured and without gaps.

Another aspect of facilities is the environment. Small, tightly confined areas with mud are not ideal for weaning calves. Give calves a stress-free space with plenty of room and grass.
Placement of cattle feed bunks and space are also critical.

We often put cattle feed bunks in a place that’s convenient for people, not for cattle. Place feed bunks in an area where calves will run into them, not just a place that’s convenient.

Cattle feed bunks should be placed perpendicular to fence lines so calves can bump into feed as they are circling the fences. To prevent calves from competing for bunk space, provide 12 inches of bunk space for hand-fed feeds like Purina Precon Complete Feed and 6 to 8 inches of bunk space for self-fed feeds like Purina Accuration Starter Complete Feed.

Pitfall #3: High cattle waterers and hay feedersHigh cattle waterers and hay feeders are problematic when weaning calves

Beyond making sure calves can find water sources and ensuring there is clean, fresh water available for all calves, another common pitfall is water accessibility.

Make sure your cattle water trough is not too tall. Don’t assume that 400- or 450-pound calves are going to be able to reach the same cattle waterers set up for 1,200-pound cows.

The same concept applies to cattle hay feeders.

If the hay ring is out, and the round bale is in the hay ring, but the calves can’t reach the tower of hay in the middle – you’ve got a problem.

Check your cattle hay feeders to ensure they aren’t too tall or deep for the shorter necks of calves. If hay is out of reach, do what you can to spread hay from the center toward the outside of the hay ring.

Plan to drive feed intake

My top piece of advice when weaning calves? Have a plan to maximize feed intake.

The end goal is to drive intake and get calves eating the nutrients they need to stay healthy. Anything you can do to set calves up to eat at target intake levels will help them have a higher chance of success.

Does your nutrition program stack up? Find out with a Proof Pays feeding trial.