Procedure 3

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Wean as early as possible, without compromising overall calf growth rate

In this procedure:
  • Determine the weaning age of calves
  • Wean calves.

Determine the weaning age of calves

Guidelines to determining the best calf weaning age

As a principle, the sooner calves are weaned the greater will be the potential turn-off of young cattle. Adopting an earlier weaning age is the single most important way to increase weaner throughput as it allows better allocation of feed to reproduction and turn-off.

Wean calves when pasture use is better for calf alone than cow–calf combination

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 (normally around six months into lactation when the higher quality pasture required to maintain cows and produce a relatively small amount of milk is better consumed directly by the weaned calf)
  • implement a weaning strategy that ensures no check occurs in calf growth.

These management practices need to be in place when weaning as early as possible, and without compromising the overall calf growth rate.

  • Wean calves between 6 and 9 months of age (in line with current industry practice in southern Australia).
  • Use high quality weaner pastures for rapid animal growth.
  • When weaning in summer, use the best available dry pasture for the weaners.

Weaning age and projected liveweight gains post-weaning depend on pasture availability and quality. Ideally, weaning needs to take place when pasture height and availability are best for maximum intake by the weaned calf, and the pasture has a nutritional quality of more than 11.5MJ ME/kg DM and at least 15% crude protein. 

In general, use the combination of age and weight of calves, and condition score of cows, as the basis for a decision to wean calves as early as possible. This is particularly important when there is a limited quantity of high quality pasture available. Determine your weaning strategy based on the following guidelines.

As a general rule, the earlier the age of weaning, the better the nutrition required for the weaners, in terms of energy and protein. In many instances, pasture alone will not be adequate and a high quality supplement will be required.

Use calf age, weight and cow condition score as indicators to earlier weaning

  • Minimum 100 days from when the last calf was born and weight of the lightest calves in the group is at least 100kg. Weaning calves too early can result in calf deaths, reduced ability to thrive and reduced throughput of saleable animals.
  • Maximum 6 months old depending on the season and quality of available pasture.
  • When cow condition score is falling and reaches 2.5. If weaning is too late, loss in cow condition score can be so great that fertility is reduced at the subsequent joining.

Refer to Tool 5.5 for the relationship between weaning age and liveweights for three growth rates relative to pasture quality in British breed cattle.

Early weaning

Early weaning is a useful management strategy in drought as it allows better allocation of limited feed resources.

To make an earlier weaning strategy worthwhile in normal seasons, the additional pasture (resulting from reduced consumption by lactating cows) needs to be used by increasing the number of calves reared or by other avenues (such as purchased growing stock) to achieve an increased throughput of saleable product.

Pasture saved by early weaning needs to be utilised by additional growing stock

Early weaning as a management option

Early weaning is a management strategy that can be implemented to improve throughput of sale.

Many experiments have shown that beef calves can be weaned successfully at 100 days of age and from weights as low as 100kg provided they are offered high quality feed. The feed offered to early weaned calves must be of high nutritional quality and contain more than 11.5MJ ME/kg DM and at least 15% crude protein.

Peterson et al. (1987) reported that early weaned cow–calf pairs were 43% more efficient in converting digestible nutrients into calf gain than conventionally weaned cow–calf pairs.

Early weaning of calves also provides substantial benefits to the cows through reduced weight loss during lactation, higher body conditions scores and significantly shorter calving intervals.

Table 1: Energy and protein requirements of weaner steers and heifers
Liveweight steers/heifers Daily growth rate Max. daily intake ME MJ/day required Min. ME required Crude protein %
200kg 0.0 5.5 26 4.8 8
200kg 0.5 5.5 44 8.0 12
200kg 1.0 5.5 59 10.7 13
300kg 0.0 7.6 35 4.6 8
300kg 0.5 7.6 57 7.5 10
300kg 1.0 7.6 76 10.0 13
400kg 0.0 9.4 45 4.8 8
400kg 0.5 9.4 71 7.6 9
400kg 1.0 9.4 93 9.9 13

 

Several experiments have also shown higher performance and better meat quality from early-weaned calves when compared with conventionally weaned animals. Earlier weaning of calves provides substantial benefits to the cows through reduced weight loss during lactation with higher body condition scores and significantly shorter calving intervals.

What to measure and when

  • Age and weight of calves at 100 days from when the last calf was born (see Tool 5.5 for projected growth paths).
  • Any harmful effect on cow health and udder damage to high milk yield cows.
  • Quality and quantity of pasture available for weaned calves (at least 11.5MJ/kg DM and 15% crude protein) – assess weekly immediately before the proposed weaning time, and then following weaning.

Note: The predicted effect on enterprise profitability from earlier weaning and better utilisation of available pasture by animals destined for sale can be determined in relation to variation in weaning age within Tool 1.1 and Tool 1.2 of Module 1: Setting directions.

Wean calves

Guidelines to yard weaning calves

Industry best practice has proven that yard weaning is a simple and effective procedure that can lift cattle productivity.

Use dedicated yards to wean calves

Cattle that are yard weaned are more familiar with stock yards, water troughs, feeding routines and people. By exploiting the fact that weaning is a critical learning time, young cattle can be well prepared for a productive future. Yard weaned groups of cattle also have the major advantage of stronger social bonds between individuals. While training cattle during yard weaning, their individual temperament (confidence) can be assessed and flighty (shy) cattle can be identified for removal or special treatment.

Weaning is an important learning phase for cattle.

The benefits of yard weaning are fully realised if cattle later go into feedlots. In the feedlot, a healthy and productive feeder steer has to:

  • accept confinement and go on to concentrate feed and water quickly
  • adapt easily to the initial social/psychological and metabolic stressors
  • achieve high feed conversion rates and weight gain through good adaptation individually and as a feeding group
  • have strong resistance to respiratory disease, partly as a result of social compliance and group cohesion
  • accept the presence of people, vehicles and horses at close quarters.

Guide to yard weaning

The following requirements must be met to implement yard weaning as a management tool.

  • Well built, weaner-proof yards with solid opaque pen sides (rubber belting 1.2m wide is ideal).
  • A reasonably sloped, well drained, non-bog surface.
  • Pen stocking density of 4m2/head for 180–260kg calves, and 2.5m2/head for 100–170kg early-weaned calves.
  • Weaners kept in the yards for 5–10 days (with the aim to have the majority back onto high quality pastures as quickly as possible).
  • Cattle fed daily with high quality hay or silage (at least 11.5MJ ME /kg DM and 15% crude protein) – the feed does not need to be supplied in a bunk or trough and can be successfully fed through a round bale feeder.
  • Good quality drinking water supplied in a trough.
  • Shy feeders removed and managed as a separate group to prevent rapid and excessive weight loss.
  • Routine human contact each day (eg walking quietly through the yard at least two or three times each day).
  • In general, keep dogs away from the weaning yard.

Handling at weaning

Positive contact between humans and weaners minimises management problems down the track

Weaned calves should be encouraged to approach humans with a memory of positive associations. Grouping calves in a small area at weaning with regular handling boosts socialisation between animals and with humans, and reduces subsequent stress associated with handling and transport. Well-behaved stock will generally create fewer management and work safety problems.

Negative or insufficient positive contact between humans and calves at weaning can result in the animals remaining frightened of human activity. This can cause increased stress during handling and transport, high pH and dark-cutting meat. Insufficient contact with humans can also lead to cattle not adapting well to more intensive feeding, such as in drought feeding or feedlots.

Weaner pastures

High quality feed produces rapid liveweight gains in weaner cattle

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 rate. As a guide for best liveweight gain, weaner pastures should be of a nutritional quality of at least 11.5MJ ME/kg DM and 15% crude protein. If high quality pastures are not available at weaning and weight gain is desired, consider providing a feed supplement to boost the nutritional quality of the diet, but ensure that the cost of a supplementary feeding option does not exceed the benefits.

Careful management of weaning pays individual and industry dividends

Weaning needs to be carefully managed to avoid any check in post-weaning growth and productive performance of calves. Pay special attention to pasture quality (at least 11.5MJ ME) and calf management to ensure successful transition to a pasture or pasture plus supplement-based diet.

What to measure and when

  • Measure the nutritional (energy and protein) content of post-weaning feed for 3 months after weaning.
  • Monitor pastures at least weekly, and more often if seasonal conditions are deteriorating. See Module 3: Pasture utilisation for information on the assessment of pasture quantity and quality.

Further information

  • MLA Tips & Tools 'Yard weaning methods for preparing feeder cattle' available online: http://www.mla.com.au/publications
  • Yard wean to boost production, MLA Prograzier, Spring 2003, p19.