One of the most important times of year for a beef cattle enterprise is weaning. It can lead to improvements across your business, in everything from herd fertility and pasture utilisation, through to performance in feedlots.
Why do you need to wean?
In a poor season, the primary reason for weaning is to improve herd fertility for the coming year, by maintaining the condition of suffering cows. When a cow is putting energy and protein into producing milk for a calf, its own condition often suffers. Equally important to note is that a cow in poor body condition for an extended period of time will struggle through its next pregnancy. As a general rule, if you remove a 4-8 month old calf from a cow under stress, the cow will regain strength and the calf will manage.
Good weaning management will result in more calves in the year to come. It also means better utilisation of feed, as nutrients and energy go directly to calves, rather than going via cows. Other benefits as a result of increased handling include making management easier, leading to gains in efficiency long-term.
When to wean
MLA’s More Beef From Pastures program advises, “As a principle, the sooner calves are weaned the greater will be the potential turn-off of young cattle.” However, wean too soon and calves will fail to thrive (and may not survive at all).
MLA goes on to recommend weaning calves in Southern beef herds:
- A minimum 100 days after the last calf was born
- When the weight of the lightest calves in the group is at least 100kg
- When cow condition score is falling and reaches 2.5
Early weaning may also be necessary when a calf is not making the desired weight gain, or there is a need to allocate limited resources carefully. This is often the case with Northern beef herds. Addressing this issue, MLA has released a helpful booklet about raising weaners in the north. In it, they highlight that Northern beef herd enterprises implementing an early weaning strategy have an 8 per cent increase in beef output and a 19 per cent improvement in profit.
Drawbacks for early weaning
Increased beef production and increased profits? Why wouldn’t you wean as early as possible?
The truth is, early weaning means more intensive and more expensive management of your herd. If it isn’t done properly you will do your calves more harm than good.
Extra inputs you have to account for include infrastructure for yarding and feeding weaners, increased labour costs, and more volumes of expensive supplementary feed. You should only consider early weaning unless necessary in a poor season, or after you’ve carefully weighed up these factors against any subsequent gains.
A note on nutrition
Successful weaning depends on weaners getting all their nutritional needs fulfilled once they are separated from their mother. This isn’t just a matter of giving animals the priciest feed that’s on offer.
As Rick White BVSc, Chief Livestock Agronomist of Grow, explains, care must be taken to ensure that calves, which have an underdeveloped digestive system, make the best of their new diet rather than go backwards.
“To help a weaner maintain high growth rates after weaning it’s important to ensure that the animal is in good health, the rumen is able to adapt to the new diet rapidly, and the rumen architecture is developed as quickly as possible,” Dr White says.
“This means attention to all appropriate animal health treatments, and supplementing the pasture to meet the nutritional requirements for both the rumen’s microbiology system and the animal. Starch in the diet always gets the attention because it’s the key driver of fermentation in the rumen. However, it’s always about the balance of the whole diet.”
Abrupt separation: calves are put into a paddock far removed from the cows. This is more stressful than other methods for both the cow and calf.
Gradual separation: the cows and calves are put in adjoining paddocks on either side of a secure fence. The cows will move away from the calves to water and graze for extended periods. Within a week, cows are moved farther away.
Creep weaning: calves share a paddock with cows and are given access to better quality pasture in an adjacent paddock via a “creep gate” only they can squeeze through. As the calves grow comfortable away from the cows, the animals can be separated.
Yard Weaning: considered industry best practice, this process involves placing calves in dedicated weaning yards for at least seven days and up to 3 weeks. It’s intensive and more expensive than other methods but has several benefits, discussed below.
Yard weaning benefits
Weaning is a critical learning time for young cattle. Cattle that are yard weaned become comfortable with people, water troughs, feeding routines and being handled in stockyards. They also become better socialised and are less prone to stress.
Research by the Cooperative Research Centre for Beef Genetic Technologies found that yard-weaned cattle, with vaccination and yard training, go on to feed faster in feedlots, suffer less illness and even yield more tender beef.
The benefits of good weaning management are endless, and will pay dividends from paddock to plate.
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