Health Considerations When Weaning Calves


   Wow, what a year again for raising cattle or any livestock. We held the Dixon Springs Beef Field Day and numerous producers were talking about harvesting hay. Amazingly several had not even harvested their first cutting! However, it is completely understandable due to numerous days of rain as well as the copious amounts received.
   While many may be thinking of harvesting hay or crops, it is still important to remember where you are in the overall herd management calendar; maybe it is time to consider the pre-weaning or weaning phase and calf management. If the time to wean calves is quickly approaching, then consider the following: will you retain ownership of any calves, will the calves be preconditioned, when will the calves be weaned (age or weight based), etc.
   Probably one of the first things you may want to consider is whether you plan to retain ownership of replacement heifers. Keep in mind that they represent the future profitability and genetic improvement of your cow herd. Thus these females must be of the highest quality since they may be in your herd for several years. Here are a few rules of thumb to follow when deciding which heifer calves will be retained as replacements: 
   a) What traits are economically important to your herd? Select heifers at weaning that are ranked in the top 2/3 of the group and cull the bottom 1/3.
   b) Select females from cows that are identified as above average producers within the herd.
   c) Cull females from cow families that require assistance at calving, have bad eyes, unsound udders and other structural problems.
   d) Cull heifers from the top 2/3 that are structurally unsound, unfeminine, small framed, over conditioned, late born calves.
   e) Keep in mind that during the breeding season you can be very selective for those females that breed either to AI or within a very specific window to a high quality bull. If they do not meet these specific criteria then, from a management perspective, those females should be sold. Remember your goal is to have replacement heifers that have high fertility and possess the traits that are economically important to your herd.
   It is recommended that calves should be weaned at least 45 days prior to sale or according to the requirements of the specific pre-conditioning program. A large amount of stress is associated with weaning. Techniques that minimize or lessen stress during this time may benefit calf health and growth performance.
   Preconditioning is a term used frequently in the beef industry, but it can mean different things to different people. Most producers may think that a vaccination protocol is preconditioning; however, that is just one component of the total package. Preconditioning is really preparation of the calf to enhance future health and performance in backgrounding, stocker or feedlot settings and includes dehorning, castration, deworming, calf vaccinations, and acclimation to a feed bunk and water tank.
   If you plan to sell preconditioned cattle then a little preparation is a must. Did you castrate or dehorn the calves at birth? Cattle buyers will often discount calves for the presence of horns. Dehorning methods may differ by animal age and stage of horn development. Mechanical dehorning can be performed at any age or animal size; however, stress and complications associated with dehorning may be minimized by dehorning at a young age, preferably at less than one month of age.
If the bulls are not castrated, then take into consideration what weight the calves will be when sold.  Generally speaking calves over 400 pounds will bring more if they are castrated. I have attended numerous auctions and, again generally speaking, 500 and 600 pound calves will bring 5 and 7.5 to 10 cents, respectively, more if they are castrated. Thus it may financially be it may be in your interest to castrate before selling. Castration becomes increasingly stressful as bulls get older. Younger bulls experience less bleeding, infection and weight gain depression than older bulls.
   Are you considering vaccinating the calves? If so then consider administering the first dose of vaccine two to four weeks prior to weaning and administer a booster injection at weaning. Alternatively cattlemen will give the first vaccine at weaning followed by a booster vaccine two to four weeks later. The more complete the vaccination program the better. You want a vaccine that covers all the respiratory pathogens because you don’t know what pathogens calves may encounter. When implementing a vaccination program is to be sure to read the product label directions and to follow Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) guidelines during the process.
   Calves should also be treated with a deworming product. It is ideal to treat for internal and external parasites simultaneously. Many pour-on and injectable products will treat for internal parasites as well as lice, mange mites and horn flies. Remember that an infection with internal parasites can interfere with the ability of calves’ immune systems to respond to vaccines and to fight off infection by respiratory pathogens.
   Practice low-stress handling practices when processing calves. The lower the stress level of calves can boost their immune response to vaccines. Aside from the responsibilities cattle producers have in giving their cattle the best possible care, there is a financial incentive for having healthy calves. Sick calves will never perform at the level it would have if it had not been sick. Buyers want healthy calves that not over conditioned and will seek out those types of calves to purchase in future sales. ∆
   DR. TERESA L. STECKLER: Extension Specialist, Animal Systems/Beef, University of Illinois

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