Weighing the Pros and Cons of 5 Common Calf Weaning Approaches

Management : Cow & Calf

Management : Weaned Calf

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Purina Animal Nutrition

Weaning sets calves up for the next phase in the production cycle – whether that’s grazing as stockers, heading to a feedlot or preparing to be breeding stock. But, much like all of cattle production, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
You have to choose the approach that works best for you, while meeting key goals that set calves up for performance, including:
Consider the pros and cons of these five primary calf weaning practices:

1. Pasture fenceline weaning 

  • How it works: Uses a physical barrier between cows and calves while still allowing nose-to-nose contact and visibility. Typically, a barbed wire or woven wire fence is used to separate pastures.
  • Benefits: Stress is limited since the cow and calf can still bond during the initial days of weaning. Calves can easily acclimate to their surroundings because the cows are nearby.
  • Drawbacks: If fences aren’t well maintained, calves will crawl through to nurse from their mother, extending the weaning process. Cows may also cross the fence to find their calves. Maximizing feed intake can also be challenging since calves must get accustomed to eating supplements in a pasture.

2. Drylot weaning 

  • How it works: Moves calves from a pasture to a drylot for weaning. Feed may be delivered to calves in a bunk or self-feeder, potentially along with free-choice hay. In most cases, cows aren’t present. However, keeping cows in adjacent pens or pastures can capture the benefits of fenceline weaning.
  • Benefits: In comparison to pasture weaning, putting calves in a confined lot stops them from walking off too much energy and allows for closer proximity to feed; this encourages optimal growth performance. You can monitor calves for health issues like respiratory disease more easily, and calves become accustomed to eating from a bunk before entering a feedlot.
  • Drawbacks: Separating calves from cows with no ability to see or make nose-to-nose contact causes calves to vocalize more.

3. Nose flap/Silent weaning 

  • How it works: Nose flaps eliminate a calf’s ability to nurse a cow but allows calves to still graze and eat supplements. The nose flap usually stays in for at least a week. Then it is removed, and you can separate calves from cows to wean.    
  • Benefits: This is a low-stress way to gradually wean calves and allow the cow/calf pair to maintain a maternal bond. Using nose flaps can be combined with other weaning strategies.
  • Drawbacks: Nose flaps need to be purchased if you haven’t done this type of weaning before and cost approximately $2-3 each. Calves might lose their nose flaps and be able to nurse on cows. Additional labor is required to put nose flaps in and remove them.

4. Early weaning

  •  How it works: Calves are typically 205 days (or seven months) old when they’re weaned. Early weaning is anything ahead of this for your oldest calves. You can wean calves as soon as 90 to 120 days old.
  • Benefits: Early weaning reduces cow nutritional needs since cows aren't nursing calves and is typically situational. Two examples include early weaning to spare forage during a drought or capturing sale premiums by marketing lighter calves at an earlier date.
  • Drawbacks: Lost opportunity to efficiently put more weight onto calves while nursing on pasture. Younger calves tend to have a more naïve immune system and a more immature rumen compared to conventionally weaned calves. Early weaned calves also need a higher energy density and higher protein diet than traditionally weaned calves to account for lower feed intakes.

5. Abrupt/Truck/Unweaned

  •  How it works: This approach is used when calves are shipped directly to a sale barn or new operation without a formal weaning process performed.
  • Benefits: Lower input costs.
  • Drawbacks:  Abrupt weaning is high stress and causes calves to lose potential performance and succumb to health challenges. Calves tend to have more shrink when abruptly weaned. Buyers may discount calves based on a lack of adequate management due to limited health and nutrition information.

Starting them right with nutrition 

No matter which calf weaning method you choose, getting calves off to a good start begins with quality nutrition. Purina® starter feeds provide palatable and nutrient-dense supplementation that helps optimize performance. Here are three starter feed options for a variety of weaning methods:
  • Purina® Accuration® Starter Feed: A complete, self-fed starter that doesn’t require additional forage. A great option for producers looking to maximize potential for gain. Multiple formulations to ensure calves are supplied the right levels of nutrition at a given age. 
  • Purina® Precon® Complete Feed: A hand-fed, extremely palatable pelleted complete feed good for getting calves on feed quickly with no additional forage needed.
  • Purina® Stress Care® Supplements: A hand-fed, pelleted calf supplement designed to be fed alongside free-choice, high-quality forages to optimize performance.
All Purina® starter feeds contain RX3® Immune Support Technology, a precise combination of prebiotics, probiotics and plant extracts. RX3® Immune Support Technology helps prime a calf’s innate immune system so that they can react to a health challenge, respond more appropriately, and return to optimal health.
Including a Purina® Stress Tub in a weaning program is also extremely valuable to provide balanced nutrition. Stress Tubs provide key nutrients (especially for timid calves) and encourages all calves to get on feed quickly during the weaning program.
When selecting a weaning program for your operation, consult with a veterinarian and Purina dealer. Your local veterinarian can help select the ideal health protocols to help bolster your calves’ immune system. A local Purina dealer can guide you to products that best fit your weaning goals and the sign-up process for the Purina® Plus program.