BEEF Daily

10 Ways To Have A Stress-Free Weaning Day


Many ranchers are gearing up to wean calves. Here are 10 ways to make it a stress-free experience for both the livestock and the rancher.

Even though we are busy in the field harvesting corn this week, we will take a break from running the combine and grain cart to wean calves on Saturday. Of course, rain is in the forecast for the latter part of the week, and snow is expected this weekend, but the calves are big, and corn stalks are waiting to be grazed. So, as they say in Hollywood, the show must go on.

As we prepare for weaning day, I thought I would compile 10 ways to have a stress-free weaning. Feel free to add to the list in the comments section below.

1. Take inventory of your stock.

There’s nothing worse than rounding up the pairs and bringing them home, only to find there is a calf or two missing. Santa isn’t the only one who should make a list and check it twice. Make sure all your calves and cows are accounted for before moving them too far down the road.

2. Line up enough help.

In a perfect world, all you should need is your dog, your horse and your wife (or husband) to help work cattle, but for big working days, this isn’t always the case. Being shorthanded can result in accidents or overworked help. It’s better to have too much help than not enough. Plus, the more the merrier really rings true when you have family, friends and neighbors on board to visit with while you work.

3. Follow vaccination protocols.

Do you have your cooler of ice ready to hold your vaccines? Do you have all doses you’ll need? Have you read the label to double-check that protocols haven’t changed since the last time you used the vaccines? Follow protocols as prescribed to get the most out of the medicines used.

4. Take note of poor disposition.

As you’re working calves through the chute to get weaning weights, administer shots and possibly castrate or dehorn, pay attention to disposition. While it’s understandable for a calf to be a little worked up on its first visit through a chute, notice the ones that jump and bang against the paneling. Mark down the ones that race out of the chute at lightning speed. These observations should go into your considerations when choosing replacement heifers. Perhaps the wild, high-headed heifer shouldn’t stick around.

5. Acclimate the calves to people.

Hopefully, you spent the summer riding through your pastures and checking calves or filling creep feeders, so your cattle are used to seeing people. If you haven’t, now is the time to gently introduce your presence to the stock. Walk quietly through the pens. Don’t holler, use the hot shot, or scare them in any way. You want them to feel comfortable and safe in the lot -- not looking for a low spot in the fence to jump over.

6. Keep the crew happy.

Weaning can be a long day, especially if you add vaccination, dehorning, weighing, and castration to the mix, as we do. It’s important to keep your crew happy and taken care of throughout the day. Have plenty of hot coffee and cold pop on hand. Make sure you take a decent lunch break for a pot of hot chili or beef stew. Keep your crew hydrated, and have a treat or two on hand. The happier your help, the more productive everyone will be.

7. Consider fence-line weaning.

Maybe it’s because our fences in the pasture are subpar, or maybe it’s because we’ve always weaned calves the same way, but we’ve never tried fence-line weaning. However, from what I’ve read and from conversations with other ranchers, it is one of the least stressful ways to wean calves.

8. Keep the dust down.

A lot of guys sell their calves right off the cow, so they don’t have to deal with bunk-breaking and fall vaccinations, but it’s been shown that having a calf that knows how to eat, drink and is comfortable in a feedlot adds value to the calf when it comes time to market the animal. We typically precondition our calves for a month or two before selling them, so they are over the stress of weaning, and all vaccinations, castration and other fall work is well behind. One of the immediate challenges of having calves in a lot right after weaning is dust. With rain in the forecast this week, it probably won’t be an issue for us, but if you’re in a dry year, keep the dust down in the lots by spraying water periodically. Dust makes for calves with runny noses and a cough. Less dust means you’ll have healthier calves.

9. Be mindful of sudden noises.

For the first week, newly weaned calves in a lot can be skittish. Once the bawling dies down, the quiet of the farm yard can be filled with unexpected and never-before-heard noises. A dog barks. A cat hisses. A door slams shut. These little noises can set off a group of even the tamest calves. Be mindful of these noises as calves get used to their new environment. Work quietly around the cattle. The last thing you need is calves to get scared and blow through a fence.

10. Introduce feed right away to the weaned calves.

Take note of the calves that go straight from their mom to belly up at the feeder. These calves are taking the stress of weaning well. More than likely, they have a good disposition. If they are eating, they are less likely to be the ones losing strength and getting sick. Offer grain right away to help comfort and ease the transition.

When do you plan to wean your calves? How do you market your calves each year? What tips do you have for a stress-free weaning. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Discuss this Blog Entry 9

Sandy Ankenman (not verified)
on Oct 2, 2013

Several years ago, we started fence-line weaning. Here is the story of ours and the some photos. Highly recommended.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 2, 2013

Good job on the weaning day story

arlene lagerquist (not verified)
on Oct 2, 2013

we weaned our babies on Sunday(9/30) and have "fence-line" weaned for several years cows have visual access to the calves we used cattle panels and railroad ties so everyone is able to touch noses through the holes and already (wed 10/02) things have quieted down tremendously for our farm fence-line weaning has taken a HUGE stressor (for the animals) out of weaning.

Ronnie Walker (not verified)
on Oct 2, 2013

I think you pretty well covered everything. Might do a walk through repair and oil in th corral a day or two before. Look for the red wasps, LOL

W.E. (not verified)
on Oct 2, 2013

Try fence-line weaning. You won't go back, after you see how much less is the amount and the duration of bawling and pacing. All it takes is a good fence between them, either two or three hot wires, one at calf nose height, one at cow nose height, plus one in case you have ambitious jumping cattle. Or one good hot wire on the calf side of a conventional fence is usually enough. It helps if the herd is already used to electric fence, of course. A portable solar charger will work fine in remote locations. Some may scoff at using moon signs, but weaning about one to three days after a full moon really does helps reduce stress if you have some heavy-milking cows that are still feeling the urge to provide milk. If possible, we don't co-mingle herds when fence-line weaning because re-establishing pecking order just adds to the stress of separation. All of the other things we do to calves that stress them can follow a three- to seven-day stress-free weaning period: the vaccinations, branding, co-mingling, and introduction of feed, if you must. The fact that our herd is used to management-intensive grazing techniques and daily moves helps a great deal, since the calves already see their herdsmen as providers and caretakers. We start the weaning period at a permanent five-wire high-tensile fence with one hot wire in the middle. It crosses a high-quality paddock. We give each group strips of new grass farther apart each day with no back-fence so that the cows and calves can still go to the boundary to check on one another freely. Fresh automatic water is provided with portable tanks on each side of the fence. Most will gladly separate to get to their daily allotment of fresh grass. Since our cattle are all grass-fed, we offer only high-quality hay to the calves, with no grain post-weaning. With no dietary adjustments to distract them, the calves go on to our best quality pastures, stay healthy, keep gaining at their peak rate and never miss a step. Meanwhile, the cows, after being dried off and assured their babies are fine, are quite satisfied to go to lesser quality or crop residues.

John R. Dykers, Jr (not verified)
on Oct 2, 2013

Two great descriptions of fence weaning that have said about all I know, and I recommend it highly, especially splitting up the stress. The only thing I did differently was to creep feed the calves before weaning, sometimes for many weeks, so they transitioned to feed just by moving the feeder with them. But the grass fed description sounds great. Avoid stress and the calves keep growing AND they can almost look forward to going through the chute if you put a flap on the headgate with a feedbucket to stick their face in. Anyone interested, email me and I will send you a diagram if the picture did not just pop into your head.
great how we each make the minor adjustments to fit our individual operations and opportunities.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 3, 2013

Good, commen sense, article!

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 8, 2013

Working at a vet clinic and working cattle for many, I cant stress all this enough. You wouldnt have to treat later on down the road if you can wean and vaccinate properly the first time. So many farmers come in with questions weaning and how stressful it is, but having enough help and accomodating to the cavles is the best start.

Dr. Jim (not verified)
on Nov 4, 2013

As a veterinarian who has his own cattle I've learned that weaning conditions have more affect on weaning success than any needle I can poke into my calves.
Just a couple suggestions:
The weather on the day of weaning has been shown to have a big impact on calf health - especially respiratory disease. Plan ahead if you can.
Also - I present the calves with highly palatable grassy (2nd cut) hay and top dress with a high protein calf ration to get them started. Dry matter intake is greatly reduced in that first day or two following weaning - make every bite count!

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BEEF Daily Blog is produced by rancher Amanda Radke, one of the U.S. beef industry’s top social media “agvocates.”


Amanda Radke

Amanda Radke is a fifth generation rancher from Mitchell, S.D., who has dedicated her career to serving as a voice for the nation’s beef producers. A 2009 graduate of South Dakota State...

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